Is there life 3.6km below Antarctic ice?

More than 95 percent of the surface of Antarctica is covered with a sheet of glacial ice up to 5 kilometres thick and two million years old. Consequently, nearly all of the ground under the glaciers has been literally out of sight for millennia.


Drilling hidden Antarctic lake

But by using ice-penetrating radar and seismic studies, researchers have been able to map much of this terra incognita. In the process, they have found at least 70 bodies of water nestled between the ice sheet and the Earth. The largest of these lakes, Vostok, has become a hot scientific topic because of the possibility that it might hold life in the form of microorganisms.

Lake Vostok lies beneath Russia’s Vostok research station. The lake is huge, with an area about that of Lake Ontario, but twice as deep. However, little else is known about the lake because it is beneath 3.6 kilometres of ice.


How giant hidden lakes formed beneath 3.6km of ice

It is this ice that creates and preserves Vostok and the other Antarctic lakes. As the glaciers’ own weight presses down, ice at the bottom melts under the pressure and collects in depressions. The glaciers also form an insulating lid against evaporation. Hot springs that might exist at the bottom of the lakes would prevent them from ever freezing over.
That microorganisms might live in Antarctic lakes seems improbable, though not impossible. Life has been found virtually any place on Earth that has liquid water and some energy source.

But Lake Vostok represents perhaps the most extreme environment in which to find life. If no hydrothermal vents exist to pump nutrients into the lake, food for microorganisms could come only from what is trapped in the glacial ice in contact with the lake water. Also, the lake
is being squeezed by the glacier above up to 340 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. This compression wrings out of the water nearly all the gases needed for respiration, possibly leaving lake life without a breath.


Similarities to conditions on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

With such hostile conditions, Lake Vostok resembles Jupiter’s satellite Europa, which very likely has an ocean under its thick crust of ice. The presence of life in Vostok would suggest that it could also exist in Europa’s also frigid depths.
A team of scientists studying Vostok has already drilled to within 120 metres of the top of the lake. However, concerns about contaminating the pristine water, which has not been open to the air for perhaps two million years, have delayed further drilling. But when these technical
problems are solved and scientists eventually do punch their way in, they will find an alien world more like another planet than anywhere else on Earth.

The discovery of living microbes just above a hidden freshwater lake 3.6km deep in the frozen Antarctic extends the range of extreme conditions under which life is known to survive.

The finding, which researchers say almost certainly indicates there is a thriving community of microscopic creatures in the ancient, pristine lake, buoys hopes that life may exist elsewhere in the solar system. It also
provides some clues about how and where to start looking.

“Our results extend the possible limits for life on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe,” said David Karl of the University of Hawaii, lead researcher on one of three studies presented in the Dec. 10 issue of the journal Science. “With each discovery of life in another extreme Earth environment we learn that much more about microbial adaptation, and survival and physiological strategies for life.”


The extreme conditions of the hidden Lake Vostok

In a spot nearly 10 times as far down as the Empire State Building is tall, below an Antarctic glacier, lies what researchers believe to be a natural reservoir of fresh water known as Lake Vostok. It is deeper than Lake Tahoe and has an ice-locked “surface” that spans an area as big as New Jersey.
Researchers say Vostok, named for the Russian research station that sits above it, is the largest of nearly 80 sub-Antarctic lakes that have been mapped by airborne radio sounding. It has been known for two decades, and the recent discovery is a milestone during a years-long suspicion that there might be life trapped in the lake.

Intense pressure from the overlying ice generates heat which, combined with geothermal heat from below, is thought to keep Vostok’s million-year-old water in a liquid state. The ice also serves as an insulating blanket.

Some 120 meters (393 feet) above the lake rests the lower end of the deepest ice core ever drilled — 3,623 meters (11,886 feet) below the frigid surface. There, in freshwater ice that researchers think has migrated upward from the lake, a community of microbes — extremophiles that define their own term — thrive in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.

“There’s a first principle among microbial ecologists that states: ‘Where there’s water there’s life,'” said Warwick Vincent, a professor of biology at Laval University, Canada. “Lake Vostok is the ultimate test of this principle in one of this world’s most hostile places. These new discoveries imply that the ‘life everywhere’ adage will once again prove correct.”


Extreme forms of life found in ice just above lake

The newly discovered microbes have gone about their business of living sans any contact with the outside world for millions of years. But after doing DNA analysis, a team led by John Priscu of Montana State University said the little critters are similar to modern-day organisms, including one called a proteobacteria. “Our research shows us that the microbial world has few limits on our planet,” Priscu said.

Vincent, who was not involved in the research, agreed with the other русское порно researchers in saying it appears the lake itself has “all the ingredients for an active microbial ecosystem.”

It may be a while before that theory is proved, however. Drilling was stopped four years ago to prevent introducing anything that might contaminate the water. Delegates from several nations met in September to decide whether and how to explore the lake, but no firm proposal has been accepted.

Regardless, the discovery shows that an extremely cold, dark environment that is cut off from a ready supply of nutrients can still support life. Sealed off from the sources of energy most other known organisms survive on, it seems the Vostok microbes live off things deposited long ago.


Earth life in such extreme conditions enhances the propects of life on nearby moons

The fact that organisms have adapted to living in such harsh conditions bolsters the expectation that extraterrestrial life may be waiting to be discovered right here in our solar system. Jupiter’s ice-covered moons Europa and Callisto, both thought to contain large oceans, have emerged in recent years as two of the most likely candidates.
Evidence shows that the massive gravity of Jupiter creates “tidal pumping,” a pull on the moons, that might generate heat within. Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has a surface temperature of minus 260° Fahrenheit, but the tugging of Jupiter’s gravity may well create enough warmth to keep large parts of Europa’s ocean liquid.

“Conditions on Europa are likely similar to those of the ice covered lakes, but may not be analogous,” Karl said. “If Europa has an internal energy pump, either through hydrothermal systems or via tidal pumping, then life may be better off than in Lake Vostok where microbes may be surviving off carbon and energy deposited there a million years ago.”

Vincent, the Canadian biologist who also chairs the Canadian Committee for Antarctic Research, expressed both optimism and caution regarding the search for extraterrestrial life.

“The chemistry of the waters of Europa and Callisto appears to be very different relative to that in Lake Vostok, “For example, these vast oceans (the largest in the solar system) are salty while all the evidence, including these most recent lake-ice analyses, shows that Lake Vostok is freshwater.”


Testing for life on Jupiter’s Moons

Scientists say convincing evidence of life on Europa may not come until robotic explorers venture below the surface.
A mission, the Europa Ice Clipper, is on the drawing boards. It would be a flyby mission designed to obtain samples of Europa’s subsurface by dropping hollow copper spheres onto the icy surface. A “hydrobot” would map the undersea terrain and look for life. The samples would then be returned to Earth. No date is set for launch. The recent hunt for life in the Antarctic is expected to help build such future probes.

“I think that the Vostok experience may help in the design of biochemical and molecular probes for the search for life elsewhere,” Vincent said. “It will also help in the design of sampling technologies, not only in terms of the challenge of sampling deep ice under conditions of extreme cold but also in the development of environmentally friendly technologies that will reduce any lasting negative impacts of human exploration throughout the solar system.”

Whatever we might find on Europa, Callisto, or any other body in the solar system won’t likely look like any conventional alien, experts agree. Don’t even expect a small fish, they say. But the mere discovery of simple microbial life elsewhere would hint at the likelihood that life is a far more common occurrence in the Universe than we humans might have once thought.

Ten point checklist for getting Local Transport Plans right for pedestrians

I will cover a 10-point checklist that tests whether the LTP you are producing is a good one in the view of Living Streets. In the old days, transport planning was a simple process. It involved simply transport. You are now being asked to jump completely out of your box and make all sorts of links that have not been made before. Living Streets did not like everything in the guidance. We think that some crucial elements were left out, that there are too many objectives, and so on; but the guidance also got a lot right. It is heading in the right direction. I welcome the fact that it looks at transport issues thematically rather than by different modes, because it means porn that you are mainstreaming issues like walking, which in the past were treated as bolt-on extras.

But you cannot look at the guidance on its own. You also need to ensure that you have beside you a copy of the Walking and Cycling Action Plan which was published in July. The two documents were clearly written by different people, because the guidance does not make much reference to that Action Plan. The plan is a very important document. We spent 10 years or so campaigning for a national walking strategy. We have not got one so far, but we now have this Plan, with 42 action points. That signifies the shift which we have detected in at least some parts of the DfT towards promoting walking.

What is particularly important is the link across to LTPs. The Plan contains two actions specifically about LTPs. The first is action point 4, which says that local authorities are expected to set out in their LTPs how walking and cycling will benefit access to jobs, goods and services. Action point 40 refers to cycling and walking levels – modal share journey to work and to school will be key indicators. It is important to make that link across to the Action Plan for Walking and Cycling if you want to produce a good LTP.

Now to the checklist.

The first point on our checklist is vision.

The local transport plan is not the vision in itself; what is important is evidence that that vision exists. For an example of that, you need to look no further than here in London and the Mayor’s vision. The Mayor produced the walking plan for London earlier this year, in which he said, “London is a great city for walking. My vision is to make it one of the world’s most walking-friendly cities by 2015.” The detailed actions that the Mayor is taking in London flow from that clear vision.

You need to decide whether your document is simply a bidding document. I have been a local councillor for 10 years, and I know that these documents are often produced simply because they have to be produced in order to get the money from government. I think that they should be more than that. If you are looking at producing a really top-class plan, you need to have that vision and be clear what it is.

Also be clear that the plan is not the strategy. There is a separation between the plan, which is about the actions, and the bigger, broader strategy.

The guidance refers to this in two places. It says that the plan should be “set in the context of the local vision for the area”. It also says that it should “contain evidence of a long-term strategy within which the five-year implementation plan is set”. So if you want to score highly with the DfT, this one is important.

Checklist Point 2 is involvement.

The worst LTPs are those which are extremely technical, impenetrable, dull and unexciting, and which have not involved in the process the most important people – the users.

That is often the standard situation. It is important to involve the users, and not just the usual suspects: spread your net widely and involve others. This will make the process more difficult for you, but it will be a much more interesting one, in which the outcome will be far better in the long run.

The guidance talks about a good video porno plan having been “developed in partnership with stakeholders”.

In Living Streets, we do what we call Community Street Auditing. You should be thinking about the auditing of streets in your local area. That involves getting a cross-section of local people who use the streets in different ways, and walking the streets with them, looking for the good and the bad points. That will give you a far better idea than any meeting in a community centre or feedback from a draft consultation document. Start with a clean sheet of paper, take people out and ask them openly what they think. How safe do they feel? What is it like to cross the street? They know their streets better than any of us do, because they walk them day in, day out.

The third Checklist Point is a focus on accessibility rather than mobility.

This is a diagram from the last century showing the technique of bloodletting, which at the time was a major medical practice, based on drawing out evil humours. People who wanted to go into bloodletting as a career studied it for years, and learned which veins to open to treat which conditions. Highly learned and technical documents were produced that were almost as thick as the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges. [Laughter.] Bloodletting went on for a long time after the scientific evidence began to show that it had no real basis.

I think that transport planning over the past 50 years has some similarities with bloodletting. We have been making elaborate justifications for continuing to do what the evidence suggests does not work. This probably reached its height in the 1980s with “predict and provide” – the idea that building more roads would satiate congestion. It is like feeding an addict’s craving by giving them more of the drug. It will have only a temporary effect, and in the long run will make the addiction worse. We have made a big leap forward from the 1980s, but in this round of LTPs we need to see a break from the bloodletting ideas of the past. That is why a focus on accessibility is so important.

The guidance say that they want to see evidence that the document is not about transport as an end in itself. It talks about including accessibility analysis and strategy. This is very important in principle, but the draft guidance is seriously lacking, because it virtually ignores walking and its importance to accessibility, which is vital for people on lower incomes. People’s ability to walk to local services and job opportunities is critical, and it is not mentioned. In fact, cycling is virtually ignored as well. I hope that the guidance is changed and that omission is rectified.

The guidance also talks about the Government setting the standard for accessibility with Government buildings.

This is a picture of the crossing just outside the headquarters of the Department for Transport in Marsham Street. As you can see, there is no facility for pedestrians to cross the road. People have to run across in between the buses and the other traffic. What is good is that the action plan recognises that, and the Government are saying that they will take action, including at this location. But it is important that this is also translated into LTPs. How accessible to walkers are local government buildings and local services?

Travel can become an addiction, and accessibility is the key to the cure. We have heard a lot about gambling recently, and the fear of an increase in gambling addicts. I think that the same approach needs to be taken to travel and transport. We sometimes have to think in terms of weaning people off travel for travel’s sake, and focus much more on accessibility.

Fourth checklist point, the plans should value walking as a form of transport.

As you said, Chairman, a few years ago walking was not valued as a form of transport in its own right. Things are changing, but in this round we want to see a decisive break with the attitudes of the past.

Walking is independent as a form of transport, but other forms, such as public transport, rely on walking. A bus journey is not just the time spent on the bus; it is also the bit from your home to the bus stop and from the bus to your destination. It is essential to appreciate the importance of walking for transport.

These slides show modal share, from the National Travel Survey. Not many of us are brave enough to do five-mile walks.

Or even journeys of two to five miles.

For journeys of between one and two miles, walking comes into its own. It is the method used for a third of those journeys.

But nearly three quarters of journeys of under one mile are undertaken on foot. What is worrying about that is that nearly a quarter are undertaken in a car – people getting in their car to go around the corner; and that proportion is increasing, which is even more worrying. That cake is getting smaller, because the services we need are moving away from where we live, we are having to travel further, and therefore we do not have the option of walking. Valuing walking and giving it the respect it deserves as a form of transport is vital: it is not a bolt-on extra.

As part of the action plan on walking and cycling, in the autumn, the Government will be issuing new guidance in PPS6 on access to town centres. A large number of trips are generated by people travelling to their town centres. A lot of the increase in congestion in outer London is the result of car journeys of that sort. No thought has been given to walking routes into many of our town centres. It is important to ensure that you make those links and punch those routes through.

The plan also talks about making sure that walking and cycling are sustainable in the new developments that are proposed – building them in from the beginning, rather than having to retrofit those facilities later at great expense. If large developments are happening in your area, you should build that aspect into your LTP.

It talks about the importance of walking and cycling to work as well, and working with major employers to see how more of those journeys can be made on foot. There has been a big push on walking and cycling to school; over the next few years, there will be a similar push on walking and cycling to work.

You might look at reallocating road space and the importance of walking and cycling as forms of transport. Is enough road space allocated to them?

We have heard about “people jams” in some places, where there are simply too many people for the space. Is the priority right, or can you use the LTP to make a shift?

The economic value of people on foot is often ignored. People spend money when they walk or cycle.

Walking is also about the quality of life around the places where people live. It is about meeting other people who live in your locality. It is about being isolated because people are not walking around, or making those links and turning residents into neighbours. People feel safer when other people are walking in the area, because it reduces the fear of crime.

When we are walking, we are doing many more things than simply going from A to B. We are doing all these activities. These probably have not all come into the first round of LTPs – particularly a section on sunbathing. [Laughter.] You need to think about what people are doing in public spaces, because this is where the plans for streets come from.

Talking again about the ancient art of bloodletting, I give credit to the DfT, because there are signs that they are moving forward. The Highways Agency is light years behind them. This photograph shows part of an audit we did in Bakewell. It is a beautiful little place, which gets lots of tourists. But can you see the great big motorway sign that the Highways Agency stuck on one of their little greens? That has now gone, because the local authority has now taken over responsibility for the road. They have removed those signs and put something else there.

The same has happened at the war memorial roundabout system: all the paraphernalia has now gone. We should look at streets, not just at motorways.

We should consider the condition of our streets. Our pavements are in the worst state they have been in for nearly 20 years.

There has been an eightfold increase in the number of people using Trafalgar Square as a result of the improvements there.

You should look at traffic calming. A report by the IPPR last year made a direct link between deprivation and the level of child pedestrian casualties.

Sixthly, there should be links with health.

Very few transport departments have yet linked up with their primary care trusts. One that has is Stockport, which is setting the standard. If you have not made links with people in healthcare, you need to do so.

It is quite simple: we are using our cars more.

We are walking less than we have probably ever done as a species.

Obesity has roughly tripled over the last 25 years.

Seventhly, your plan should value small projects as well as big ones.

This relates to things like signage. You cannot work out where you are from this sign in Bakewell, because it is in such a bad conditions

There are some great signs. We know what works for people walking around. This is in Belfast.

This is in Bristol, in their “legible cities” project.

This is signage that makes sense and encourages people to walk. It is small and not hugely expensive, but if it is done well, it can make a huge difference.

The action plan talks about setting up a walking and cycling fund in the LTP, and ring-fencing some of the money for small improvements to walking and cycling.

The action plan talks about walking maps.

The eighth point is that there should be outcomes, not outputs.

The outcome we want is more people on the streets. Not many local authorities are yet measuring people on the streets. They measure the cars and lorries, but not people. That is one reason why people have been ignored for so long in this process.

There are exceptions to that. Bath is a good example, where they have a system of monitoring the number of people on the streets. If we are serious about outcomes, we need to be measuring those numbers.

The ninth point is attention to quality.

It is all very well putting these things into your plan, but you should be looking at what you are going to do to make sure that the quality is there.

This is a cycle track that I came across yesterday in Camden. I thought it was extremely inventive: instead of moving the telephone boxes, it weaves its way around, which is highly confusing for cyclists, let alone pedestrians.

Finally, the local transport plans should not be solely about the engineers. As we heard earlier, there should be cross-ownership. If it simply sits with the traffic engineers, it will not make the links that are needed. There has to be a dialogue with other parts of local authorities and other public bodies locally, to ensure that bits of the local transport plan are owned by other stakeholders, not just the transport department.