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Contamination feared as Russia explores 'lost world'

Written by: Staff
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MOSCOW, March 3 (Reuters) Hidden about four km beneath the ice near the South Pole lies a lake that scientists believe represents a lost world, harbouring organisms sealed off from the rest of the planet for millions of years.

Russian researchers are drilling down through the ice towards Lake Vostok as they seek to unlock the secrets of what some say is the last great unexplored frontier on earth.

The lake under the Antarctic ice is uniquely important precisely because it is so pristine, but all that could be lost forever if the tiniest particle of outside matter is allowed in when the Russian drill pokes through into the water.

Many experts say ultra-clean technology to pierce through to the lake without contamination is not yet ready.

Yet Russian scientists have already drilled down to within about 130 metres (430 feet) of the lake and -- defying misgivings from their peers in other countries -- say they will break through by 2008.

''The drilling will continue,'' said Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition. ''We are not violating any rules.

If our activities don't suit people, what can I say?'' ''It's like this: who was the first to fly to the moon? The Soviet Union or the United States? That time the Americans won and we halted our lunar programme,'' he told Reuters.

''Now this time we are going to be first. So what? We just got luckier, that's all ... It's all been turned into politics. Some people don't like (what we are doing) because it is not them doing it.'' Russian scientists finished their latest stint of drilling earlier this year, rushing to beat the onset of the Antarctic winter in a spot where the coldest temperature ever -- minus 89.2 Celsius -- was recorded.

They bored 27 metres (89 feet) deeper towards the lake and plan to start again in December.

PRISTINE Antarctic has more than 70 sub-glacial lakes. They exist because the pressure of the ice above keeps the water from freezing. But Lake Vostok, at between 15 and 20 million years old, is thought to be the oldest.

Exploring the lake will be like taking a journey back through time to discover what life looked like before man appeared on earth, say scientists.

More Reuters PR GC0948

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