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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 4 March, 2003, 12:02 GMT
Russia abandons Ice Station Vostok
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

For the first time, Russia will abandon its base at Vostok in Antarctica because of a lack of fuel and supplies for the coming winter.

Vostok, the most isolated manned research outpost on Earth, was established in 1957. The base sits atop a giant ice-covered lake first identified in the 1970s.

The Russian Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic, which manages Vostok, took the decision to mothball the station because it could not deliver sufficient fuel and supplies to keep the base going.

Staff have been transferred to another Russian base, at Mirny on the Antarctic coast. Vostok will be reactivated in November, in the Antarctic spring.

Cold spot

At the very centre of the Antarctic continent and some 1,000 km (620 miles) from the South Pole, Vostok is a research station like no other.

It is officially the coldest place on Earth, with a recorded low of minus 89.2 Celsius.

It is positioned at the south geomagnetic pole and as such is in a good place to observe changes in the Earth's geomagnetic field.

Ice cores drilled into the lake cap have revealed remarkable data about the Earth's past climate and scientists suspect the lake itself, cut off from the biosphere for millennia, may contain unusual lifeforms.

The station usually houses 25 scientists and engineers in the summer and 13 over the winter.

The station has been occupied since 1957
In 1982, Vostok's heating system broke down in March, the start of the harsh Antarctic winter. Its inhabitants had to endure the cold until help arrived many months later.

Try as it might, by aircraft flights or by tractor convoys from the coast, Russia has been unable to stockpile enough fuel at the base.

Vostok chief, Valery Lukin, says there is no question of Russia abandoning the station completely. Researchers will be back in the spring, he promises.

Fuel is also a problem for the US base at McMurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast.

Due to heavier than usual pack ice, a fuel tanker was unable to reach its usual docking berth and a 3.2-km (2 miles) pipeline had to be run across the ice to offload the fuel.

Images courtesy of Dr Michael Studinger, Columbia University

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30 May 02 |  Science/Nature
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27 Sep 99 |  Science/Nature

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