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Origin and fate of Lake Vostok water frozen to the base of the East Antarctic ice sheet


The subglacial Lake Vostok may be a unique reservoir of genetic material and it may contain organisms with distinct adaptations1,2,3, but it has yet to be explored directly. The lake and the overlying ice sheet are closely linked, as the ice-sheet thickness drives the lake circulation, while melting and freezing at the ice-sheet base will control the flux of water, biota and sediment through the lake4,5,6,7. Here we present a reconstruction of the ice flow trajectories for the Vostok core site, using ice-penetrating radar data and Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements of surface ice velocity. We find that the ice sheet has a significant along-lake flow component, persistent since the Last Glacial Maximum. The rates at which ice is frozen (accreted) to the base of the ice sheet are greatest at the shorelines, and the accreted ice layer is subsequently transported out of the lake. Using these new flow field and velocity measurements, we estimate the time for ice to traverse Lake Vostok to be 16,000–20,000 years. We infer that most Vostok ice analysed to date was accreted to the ice sheet close to the western shoreline, and is therefore not representative of open lake conditions. From the amount of accreted lake water we estimate to be exported along the southern shoreline, the lake water residence time is about 13,300 years.

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Figure 1: RADARSAT synthetic aperture radar image15 of the ice sheet surface over the southern part of Lake Vostok.
Figure 2: Airborne ice-penetrating radar data through the Vostok core site transverse to the ice flow.
Figure 3: Fence diagram of the ice-penetrating radar data, illustrating the tracking of the internal layers across the lake superimposed on the RADARSAT image.
Figure 4: Ice thickness and accretion ice thicknesses along the Vostok flowline.


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The ice-penetrating radar data were acquired by the US National Science Foundation's Support Office for Aerogeophysical Research (SOAR) located at the University of Texas. We acknowledge the contributions of the Vostok field team, including the SOAR team, the Kenn Borek flight crews and the Raytheon East Camp crew. Comments from C. Bentley, R. Alley, E. Waddington and M. Siegert were appreciated. RADARSAT satellite data was provided by the Canadian Space Agency. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Robin E. Bell.

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Bell, R., Studinger, M., Tikku, A. et al. Origin and fate of Lake Vostok water frozen to the base of the East Antarctic ice sheet. Nature 416, 307–310 (2002).

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