Cold Comfort: 7 Amazing Antarctic Lakes
Lakes? In my frozen Antarctica? It’s more likely than you think, and their existence has nothing to do with global warming. This in-depth (brrr!) look at 7 amazing Antarctic lakes shows us the 7th continent still has a few tricks up its frosty sleeve.
Don Juan Pond
(image via: 77 Degrees South)
Don Juan Pond may sound romantic but visitors will find intimacy is the last thing on their minds – unless getting up close & personal with Mother Nature is your thing, you salty dog! Speaking of which, Don Juan Pond‘s hypersalinity is what keeps it from freezing over no matter how cold it gets, and (cue Larry David voice) Antarctica can get pretty, pretty cold. Scale is difficult to determine without trees, but note the red-coated researcher on the right in the above image.
You think the Dead Sea is salty at 8 times the ocean’s salinity? Don Juan Pond laughs at your assumptions, being 18 times saltier than the sea. Forget about floating IN it, anyone brave enough to strip down and dip their tootsies might find they float ABOVE it!
Sadly, doing the Don Juan Pond flotation exercise is not an option. Scientists aren’t sure why, but over the past few decades Don Juan Pond has been steadily drying up to the point where it’s only a few inches deep. One might assume that its location in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys region doesn’t help the situation.
Located in eastern Antarctica’s Vestfold Hills, Organic Lake formed about 6,000 years ago and gets its name from the profusion of algae it hosts. These algae produce malodorous Dimethyl Sulfide as a gaseous waste product and they do so in abundance, as the 24.5 ft (7.5m) deep lake boasts the highest level of dissolved DMS of any lake on Earth. Blazing Saddles in a drop of water, that’s what they’ve got there.
Organic Lake made the news recently when scientists testing its waters discovered the Organic Lake Virophage (above, lower left), a so-called “virus-eater” that preys on larger viruses that in turn infect the lake’s algae. Further research is being conducted to find out not only how OLV functions, but if the knowledge gained can assist medical professionals in devising new antiviral drugs and treatments for viral illnesses in humans.
Alien-sounding Radok Lake can be found near (the unfortunately beaver-less) Beaver Lake at the foot of the Prince Charles Mountains. Although not especially large as lakes go – it’s about 4 miles (6.43 km) long – Radok Lake is 1,188 ft (362 meters) deep making it the continent’s deepest surface-exposed lake. One wonders what waits in the extreme depths of Radok Lake, dreaming with his hordes hidden in green slimy vaults… the awful answer being, of course, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
(image via: Swisseduc)
Radok Lake’s most exception feature – visually, at least – is the spectacular “ice tongue” of the Battye Glacier which stabs into the lake and floats upon its frigid, cerulean blue waters. If Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones ever loaded up the Prius with PBR and headed out for a weekend at the beach, this is where they’d likely end up chilling out.
Livin’ la Lake Vida loca? Try nada. Lake Vida is capped with ice over 60 ft (21 m) thick, precluding its use for recreational watersports even at the height of the Antarctic summer. It’s been so for thousands of years. Beneath that protective ice cap, however, lies a mysterious lacustrine ecosystem that’s basically humming along in sweet isolation… at a frigid (but still liquid) -13°C, no less.
Lake Vida’s no Don Juan Pond but its kosher dill-level brine is still 7 times as saline as seawater. If it was stocked with herring, all you’d need were jars! In 2002, a research team from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Peter Doran discovered halophile (salt-loving) cyanobacteria in ice cores drilled into Lake Vida 6 years earlier.
Upon being thawed, the microbes awoke from their 2,800-year-long slumber and carried on much as before. NASA has since set up a Meteorological Station on the shores of Lake Vida to, well, keep tabs on things. The station is unmanned… I guess they saw that movie too.
Lake Bonney, a freshwater lake located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (which seem to have a lot of lakes), is 4.35 miles (7 km) long by about 1/2 mile (900 meters) wide. It was named for Thomas George Bonney, professor of geology at University College in London from 1877 to 1901, but naming it for William H Bonney (alias “Billy the Kid”) makes much more sense. Why? Because it’s fed by Blood Falls, a red-tinted plume of rusty water that pours out of the Taylor Glacier onto the lake’s surface!
Lake Bonney may soon be visited by autonomous submersible robot NASA calls “Endurance” (though I would’ve called it the “Pat Garrett”) that will explore the depths of Lake Bonney as practice for a future mission to Jupiter’s watery moon Europa. Hopefully the exploratory mission to Europa’s subsurface ocean will go ahead without any, er, holdup.
(images via: QSL)
Lake Thomas, found in the Dry (yes, I know) Valleys of Victoria Land, is a freshwater lake fed by glacial melt on Antarctica’s warmer summer days. Though Lake Thomas itself isn’t especially remarkable, it’s surrounded with some of the planet’s most eerie, inhospitable, otherworldly (yet beautiful) scenery. It’s going to be a popular place once global warming really kicks in.
(image via: Portland State University)
As is the case with many of the glacial meltwater lakes in the Dry Valleys region, the purity of the water in the frozen surface cap allows for a remarkable clarity shown off to full advantage by scientists and photographers alike.
Lake Untersee was discovered by the German Antarctic Expedition of 1938–39, which did little other than name upwards of 50 topographical features with German names and drop a dozen Nazi flag markers by air… or so they would like us to think! The lake itself is about 4 miles (6.5 km) long, 1.6 miles (2.5 km) wide, and up to 554 ft (69 m) in depth. Though permanently capped with ice up to 9.8 ft (3 m) even in the summer, it’s what lies beneath Lake Untersee’s surface that has aroused both shock and surprise.
You thought there was going to be mention of a Nazi u-boat base and UFO hangar (or both), didn’t you? Sorry, fellow conspiracy theorists, no such luck. Instead, divers who braved the exceptionally alkaline water (the pH ranges from 9.8 and 12.1, like strong Chorox) discovered… life!
(images via: WordlessTech)
Yes, life, albeit in a very primitive form. Those odd, purplish humped objects seen in the image above are not the spawn of Shoggoths, but stromatolites: layered structures built up layer by layer over centuries by mats of cyanobacteria. Stromatolites are among the Earth’s oldest fossils, dating back 3.5 billion years… and here they are at the bottom of an Antarctic lake. Maybe ol’ HP was on to something after all.
(image via: Cthulhu’s Holiday Photos)
Anglers anxious to reel in the first fish hooked in an Antarctic lake should cool their heels, as there are no viable fish populations in any of Antarctica’s many saline or freshwater lakes. Then again, many of these lakes have been isolated from the outer environment for thousands to millions of years and new discoveries concerning their ecologies continue to be made. So go ahead and bait a hook… but if something tugs on your line, let it go, man. Just let it go.