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.

Befriending the Earth

In the spring of 1995, I mentioned to an acquaintance who is part Native American, that I was preparing to go to a continental Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Convocation in Hot Springs, Arkansas. David said to me, “Please speak to the waters when you are there. They grieve because we are no longer able to hear their voices.”
At a break in Convocation proceedings, I was strolling with my cherished friend and colleague Roy. Leaning on the old wrought-iron railing around the steaming waters gushing from the earth, I told him what David had said. Roy bent across the rail and said, “Brother and sister waters, we greet you. We are sorry for the ways we have mistreated you all over our world. We understand what a loss we suffered when we stopped being able to hear your wise voices. Please forgive us for the way we have been, and help us learn again to hear you and the rest of the voices of the earth.”
There were several other tourists around–some openly staring–and Roy was not self-conscious. I was. While a part of me was deeply touched, another part was saying, “Oh Lord, what kind of New Age thing is going on? This is just water, for heaven’s sake. I guess we’ll be hugging the trees next.”
That response illuminates Western spirituality’s profound malaise in its relationship to the natural world. My discomfort with my friend’s matter-of-fact and reverent relating to water provides a small of the spiritual attitudes which have brought us to our current catastrophic environmental situation.
As Western spirituality has developed, its basic assumptions have led humans further and further away from any significant connection with the natural world, from the certain knowledge that we are part of it, as much as the brain is part of the body. There are several assumptions which have contributed to our fragmentation. In the Christian story, the Divine has been considered primarily transcendent–as opposed to manifest in this world–so things of the earth do not partake directly of the sacred. “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world.” Humans are seen as eternal in a way other beings are not (whichever way you go, it is forever!), so we are literally holier than they. Existence is an inexorable progress to the millennium, where all will be resolved forever, so here and now matters of mundane life are essentially of no importance.
We have been given “dominion” over the rest of Creation, and we do not understand that concept as did the writers of the Hebrew scriptures. In ancient Israel, relationships were intense and a sense of the holy permeated all. Those who ruled had a sacred responsibility for stewardship and for justice. Our modern world–scientific, rational, measurable–is filled with separate objects, not fellow subjects with whom we share deep bonds. “Dominion,” to the modern mind, implies no responsibility toward the rest of the universe, which shares the gift of Creation with us. Historically–a la Francis Bacon–we have seen our intellectual and moral responsibility as to understand and control and use those objects.
The modern Creation story–evolution–has been presented as a series of scientific facts, with strict suppression of the mythic, visionary, awe-filled elements which have informed other age’s stories. Hence, our story in its current form gives us no ethical or moral guidelines about dealing with each other, the world, the universe, the Divine.
We are cut off from our sources, from each other and from the rest of creation, and we have acted like it. Religiously speaking, we may be the most impoverished humans ever to exist on our planet, scorning awe and mystery and ritual as we do. Confident that our scientific, materialist ways of being will solve our problems, we have isolated ourselves from each other, from our fellow beings, and from the Sources of Creation. And we have imperiled our very home.
Serious issues, starkly presented. Issues to face squarely, so we may move toward hope. We are indebted this morning to the thought of Thomas Berry. Berry is a Catholic priest and a historian of cultures, and his ideas will provide the core of the adult religious education class which begins on September 24.
You can see that the questions raised will require more than a Sunday morning’s airing, even more than a twelve-week course. But, if we are to be true to our affirmation of the interdependent web, we will consider them. Honestly pondering these spiritual questions of life and death is our first step toward healing.
What avenues are open to us, to go beyond the categorical, reductionist modes of thinking in which we have been educated? Not to reject the explorations of science and the advance of knowledge–but to enfold them in a larger system which truly honors the rest of the universe.
What can we do, individually, to shift our own thinking, to help others shift theirs, from objectification to connectedness? Do we have the courage to have real, intense, untidy relationships which embody deep bonds? How do we sort out the shallow, superstitious, further-diminishing solutions from the deeply spiritual ones involving new ritual and understanding? When my friend Roy talks to the waters, is he just being embarrassing in public, or is he representing the religious attitude necessary for our rebirth?
How do our family and institutional lives change? How do we teach and serve as examples to the children we love? What public stands and private practices do we, as a church, sponsor and encourage?
What personal spiritual disciplines can we find, which help us move away from separateness and the old notion of dominating dominion–toward the even older notion of stewardship and responsibility? How do we change our lives so that spiritual practice is a regular part of it?
How do we open our hearts religiously? While honoring the good we inherit from our dualistic Western religious tradition, how do we learn to live in a truly incarnational faith? How can we come to know truly that it is here and now, in these bodies on this earth, that we find the Divine?
Thomas Berry tells us, “We cannot discover ourselves without first discovering the universe, the earth, and the imperatives of our own being. Each of these has a creative power and a vision far beyond any rational thought or cultural creation of which we are capable.” (195) Let us embark together upon a voyage of discovery.


Part II

We are living in the third great extinction event in the approximately 4 billion year history of life on this planet. And, unlike the last two, which occurred 250 million and 65 million years ago, this one is being knowingly caused by one species, we humans. I would like to ask, and attempt a brief answer to, the question “Is there a role for religious faith in addressing the extinction crisis.” I say extinction crisis, because I believe that it is the extinction crisis that most directly implicates the moral dimension of the environmental crisis, and because if we solve the extinction crisis, we will have necessarily solved most, if not all, other environmental problems.
The proponents of doing nothing to save our non-human cousins usually advance several arguments. One is that the sun will burn out in 4 billion years. What difference does it make if everything goes extinct now or later? Next, one hears that this mass extinction is a simple consequence of the evolution of humans. We apparently have a natural tendency, like other creatures, to compete with and, if we can, to drive other species into oblivion. It’s natural. If the end result of our conduct is to drive ourselves to extinction, that to is natural, and of no moral significance.
Lastly, and by far the most common attitude, is what might be described as the uncritical acceptance of anthropocentric fascism: we have the ability to drive other species extinction; its financially profitable for us to do so; we humans don’t need or profit from these other inconvenient species; might makes right; we have no moral duty to save species whose biological needs interfere with our modern lifestyle. The essence of this attitude is captured in the quote in this week’s Boise Weekly of an Idaho Fish & Game Commissioner who said “If I can’t hook it or shoot it, I don’t have any use for it.” Sometimes, this view is defended biblically, but most often, it is just uncritically accepted. No justification seems needed.
Can the secular environmental movement counter these attitudes? I doubt it. To date, at best, the secular movement has slowed the deterioration. Because the leadership of the secular movement is overwhelmingly populated with either secular humanists or closet pagans, the closest thing the secular movement makes to a moral argument is an appeal to our duty to future generations of humans. More often, however, the secular movement attempts to appeal to our inherent selfishness, arguing that if only we would examine the facts, we would find that it was really in our own selfish interest to preserve species because some wondrous new cancer cure or other wondrous product of benefit to humans lies undiscovered, or, if we warm the planet, our costal cities will be flooded, or our ability to grow food to feed humans will be imperiled.
This approach has not worked. The general population simply does not appear to believe that the lifestyle benefits that come from destroying other species are outweighed by hypothetical future harms. And because the secular movement will not, and probably cannot, speak in moral terms, the enemies of preserving biodiversity have in large part succeeded in marginalizing the secular movement by portraying it as simply a loud minority, disingenuously trying to protect wild playgrounds for a privileged few.
For me, I can only approach this issue as a moral matter growing out of religious faith. Thomas Berry, in his book “The Universe Story,” co-authored with Brian Swimme, states that the “Earth seems to be a reality that is developing with the simple aim of celebrating the joy of existence.” This has also been my experience. When I commune with nature, whether watching a pileated woodpecker in the wilderness or watching a squirrel outside my office, I sense the joy of existence, the sacred, the divine, the holy. I do not sense ambivalence, or an eagerness or even a willingness to be sacrificed on the alter of human material ambition. The legitimacy of this experience of the joyful, divine existence of the cosmos cannot be defended logically. I should know. I have toiled long and hard trying to come up with air-tight logical arguments, and failed. One can only seek this experience, and then chose to trust it as legitimate through an existential hop of faith. I say hop, because unlike Kierkegaard, I see the distance to travel as more akin to stepping across the crack in a sidewalk, rather than leaping across some unfathomable chasm.
The mystical traditions in all religions teach us the validity of experiencing of the divine in the existence we see all around us. Once we choose to accept this reality, by faith if necessary, and acknowledge its divinity, our duty to it becomes almost self-evident. Of course we cannot liquidate it for expedient human selfishness. And of course it becomes our duty to defend these “radiant signatures of the infinite spirit” (to use Channing’s phrase) because they cannot defend themselves. And it has always been religion’s legitimate and perhaps most important function to instruct us regarding our duty to behave righteously when our inclination is to behave selfishly.
Including this moral dimension is absolutely critical to the environmental debate and the church is the only institution with the moral authority to advance these issues. Fortunately, the Western church is showing signs of its readiness to step up to this challenge, as the Thomas Berry class will amply demonstrate. A full discussion of these developments and what an earth-befriending eco-theology might look like, however, will have to await a future Sunday.