Exploration of life under Lake Nizhneye

Belarusian polar explorers are conducting unique world research on the icy Antarctic continent, aiming for a breakthrough in microbiological and pharmaceutical sciences
By Alina Sergeeva

After spending four months on the icy continent (three ‘alone’ at the Russian Antarctic Vechernyaya Mountain station) our Belarusian team has returned to Minsk, laden with photos and videos showing a diverse range of biological samples, including those from snow and water, Antarctic mosses and lichens.

Special attention has been paid to microbial diversity, with some even able to absorb oil from spills. New Belarusian equipment designed specifically for use in low temperature conditions has been tested, including radar to study the ice sheet in Antarctica. Our Belarusian polar explorers liaised with Russian colleagues for some of their experiments, following close co-operation having been established long ago. Alexey Gaidashov, the Head of the Belarusian Antarctic expedition, tells us more.

How are our Belarusian polar explorers co-operating with Russian colleagues?
Belarus and Russia are strategic partners in most areas of international activity. Co-operation in Antarctica is just one further example. On March 15th, 2013, the Government of the Republic of Belarus signed an agreement with the Government of the Russian Federation regarding co-operation in Antarctica, following a meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State, in St. Petersburg. Our partnership is focused on scientific, logistical and transport spheres. By using the well-established transport pattern of the Russian Antarctic expedition, Belarus can send people and materials simultaneously, saving money. Of course, we pay our way fully on board ship.

With the Russians, we’re planning joint research programmes for engineering and technical work. Together, we’ve been conducting certain types of research and observations, receiving planes during the summer Antarctic season, organising environmental activities, carry out loading and unloading operations and, where necessary, carrying out joint rescue operations and activities to ensure the safety of people. We also regularly exchange scientific information.

Is Antarctica really the perfect testing ground for certain devices?
Absolutely — because of the lack of human disturbance. In the Antarctic, we’ve previously tested Belarusian subsurface probing radar devices, which allow us to look under the surface of the snow — from 100m to a few kilometres. This locator can be used for engineering surveys in constructing large sites.

We carried out some studies for the first time: unique to world science. One such is the exploration of an old lake called Nizhneye. For many thousands of years, it has been covered with 1.5-2.5m of ice, with water temperatures of minus 1 degree. Under the ice is a riot of life: multimetre bacterial mats, which are huge areas of interconnected micro-organisms. From outside, they appear to be brown and green but closer inspection reveals other bacteria, yellow or orange in colour. For the first time, we’ve managed to pick up samples of sediment from the bottom of the lake. Around Japanese Syowa Station, which is 300km from our base, similar research was conducted last year. However, the core explored by the Japanese was quite small: 60cm (to our 1.75m). Ours is really unique. Of course, there may be yet more unknown or long extinct bacteria and micro-organisms to discover.

When will we gain our own Belarusian polar station in Antarctica?
In autumn 2014, the first module of our station is to be delivered to the Antarctic, with the first phase of its construction to be completed in 2018. However, to implement this plan, we need to make adjustments to the state programme by which the project is funded.

The presence of our own station will represent more than our ‘business card’; it will be an important factor in determining our place within the Antarctic community. Belarus has signed the Antarctic Treaty and has approved the Protocol on Environmental Protection, coming to the Antarctic with serious intentions. Our main objective now is to acquire the status of a consultative party, gaining the right to vote, to veto and to influence decision-making regarding the future of this continent.
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