Our Russian Colleague — Irina

Our Russian Colleague – Irina

Written by Betty Trummel

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A few nights ago I had the pleasure of interviewing our Russian colleague and observer on the project, Irina.  This was great timing, because the Russian station, Vostok Station, just celebrated it’s 55th anniversary on December 16th, 2012.

Russian Stations in Antarctica

Russia has five permanent stations in Antarctica, but Vostok is probably the most well-known.  Vostok is located at 78 degrees south latitude and 106 degrees east longitude.  The station is 3488 meters (11,443 feet) above sea level.  Vostok Station is 1260 km (782.9 miles) from the coast.  It’s median (middle) temperature is -55 degrees Celsius (-67 degrees F).  It’s “polar day” lasts from approximately October 21 until February 21.  The “polar night” is between April 23 and August 21.  It is very dry at Vostok, and there is only about 2 cm (0.78 inches) of snow per year.  UV (ultra-violet) radiation is very high here, which means you have to wear a lot of sunscreen to protect your skin.

Here is an aerial view of Vostok Station below.

Vostok aerial view

Vostok is much smaller than McMurdo Station.  In the summer science season, only 30 people can stay at the station.  In the long, dark winter months, up to 12 people winter over here.  The coldest recorded temperature in Antarctica was at Vostok Station in 1983; it was -89.2 degrees C (-128.56 degrees F).  Brrrr!!!

Vostok P1300026 vagonchiki

Many stations have signposts such at this one, marking the distance to points around the world.

Vostok P1300021 ukazateli

Through the years some parts of the station have become buried in the snow, making it necessary to have a sort of hallway.entrance way leading to the door of the buried building.

Vostok P1300029 podoldom

International cooperation is a part of the fabric of scientific research on the continent.  From 1989-1998 scientists from Russia, France, and the United States worked together at Vostok drilling ice cores.  Notice how long some of those ice cores are in the photo!

Science at Vostok

The photo below will give you a good idea of what an ice core looks like.

Ice core retrived

Irina shared the on-going science projects at Vostok which include:  meteorology, ozone content measurement, atmospheric phenomenon, geomagnetic observations, deep drilling of the Antarctic ice sheet, accessing sub-glacial Lake Vostok, and paleoclimatic (past climate; studied through fossils, sediments, and ice cores) studies.

Irina does research at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia.  She has worked there for two years but began her Vostok studies back in 1998 at another institute in St. Petersburg.  She is particularly interested in microbiology; looking for living organisms in Lake Vostok.  Lake Vostok lies underneath Vostok Station, which was not known at the time the base was established 55 years ago.

240px-Lake_Vostok_Sat_Photo_color

(Satellite image from Wikipedia entry on Vostok Station)

Lake Vostok is the one of the top ten lakes in the world in terms of overall size.  It is 275 km by 65 km.  It is third in depth, after Lake Baikal (1642 meters) in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in Africa.  Scientists can determine the depth of lakes using seismic studies (bouncing sound waves off the bottom of the lake and recording how long it takes for the sound waves to come back).  Nature also conducts its own seismic activity, in the form of earthquakes, and the area around Lake Vostok has been active within the past ten years.

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(cut away diagram from Wikipedia)

Scientists believe that Lake Vostok was formed by movements of the tectonic plates; part of the lithosphere (the crust of the Earth).  This lake is a unique environment, hidden under nearly 4 km of ice.  They believe it could be 15 million to 30 million years old.

The Russian team drilled through the ice and reached Lake Vostok in February 2012.  The lake lies 3663 meters below the ice.  Irina wants to know what can live in the lake in such harsh conditions.  It’s dark, cold, and saturated with oxygen.  She also wants to know what these organisms are doing.  Irina asks questions such as “Did these organisms live before the glaciation of Antarctica, and if so, how have they evolved (changed) over the years?

Drillers will not only access the water in the lake and take samples. They will also continue to drill into sediments at the bottom of the lake.  They believe that the sediment layer is about 200-300 meters thick, followed by what’s called “basement rock” which is a solid rock foundation.

After punching through to Lake Vostok, the drill was retrieved.  As they brought it to the surface, ice formed on the core barrel because the temperature in the borehole was -55 C.  Here is a photo of what the core barrel looked like once it returned to the surface.  The drill head is inside that casing of ice.

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Scientists have also collected surface snow near Vostok Station and would like to learn what organisms are living at the surface.  One question they have is can these organisms get to the lake water by filtering through the ice over long periods of time?  When ice and snow are collected, scientists will wear clean suits and work in certified clean rooms to keep the purity of the specimens in tact.  The photo below demonstrates the collection of the surface snow.

collecting snow at Vostok

WISSARD scientists are studying a subglacial lake…Lake Whillans, but this lake has distinct differences compared to Lake Vostok.  Lake Whillans is part of a more dynamic system.  Using satellites measurements, scientists can observe the surface of the ice sheet rise and fall as Lake Whillans drains and fills with water.  In comparison, Lake Vostok is more isolated and static (stable).  Scientists believe it hasn’t changed much in millions of years.

Here’s a photo of Irina (far right), Susan (middle), and me out at the WISSARD test site yesterday.

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It has been a pleasure getting to know Irina and learning more about her work regarding Lake Vostok.  I thank her for sitting down with me to teach me more about the Russian station, and her work related to the WISSARD Project.  I love the international connections in scientific research here in Antarctica.  It demonstrates how international cooperation benefits all members of the scientific community.

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