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Tuesday, 31 March, 1998, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Lost lake beneath Antarctic ice-cap
There are not many places on Earth still untouched by human hand.

One of the few is a vast lake which lies more than three kilometres beneath the Antarctic ice cap and which could contain organisms, and even creatures, from pre-history.

It is named after the Russian base below which it lies - Lake Vostok - and Russian scientists have already drilled down to within 130 metres of its surface.

But the risks are huge. In the act of penetrating this virgin environment, investigators could contaminate the lake and destroy the very things they wish to study.

An international group of experts from the UK, Russia, Germany, France and America met at the weekend in St Petersburg to work out strategies for examining the lake without damaging it.

Janet Dalziell is climate campaigns co-ordinator for Greenpeace International. She explained her hopes and concerns about the enterprise.

"The lake itself is clearly a treasure trove for science and the pristineness of it is what is so special and that is precisely what we have always envisaged as one of the very valid uses of Antarctica, it is one of the last and cleanest places on the planet.

"But the excitement about this lake shouldn't mean that we should rush into exploring it."

She stressed the importance of maintaining the lake's pristine nature "because otherwise its value will be ruined and we would like to see the scientists involved be 110% sure that they are not going to contaminate the lake before they break through that last few metres of ice."

Dr Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey, one of the experts at the St Petersburg meeting, said the scientists were likely to use a hot-water lance to cut deeper into the ice. They then plan to use a thermal probe which will sterilise itself as it descends.

The ice will freeze and close behind it and when the probe reaches the water it will release a "hydrobot" to begin sampling the chemistry of the lake.

The voyage of discovery will take years and Nasa scientists are regarding the project as a rehearsal for the exploration of the ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa.

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