Lake Vostok, Antarctica

Lake Locations:

Antarctica -

January 2013 Update: The Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute announced that the Russian team reached lake water ice on January 10, 2013, successfully extracting a clean water sample from the lake. The scientific community eagerly awaits analysis of the reportedly untainted core sample, in hopes that this 2-million-year-old lake will provide insights into Earth’s earliest life forms.

Where in the world is Lake Vostok? One of the world’s largest lakes is virtually unknown. Not only because it is never visited but because it was only discovered in 1996. Lake Vostok, estimated to be the approximate size of Lake Ontario, is still being explored from a distance. This huge natural marvel is located beneath over 2 miles of ice and was discovered because ice core samples being collected by Russian scientists suddenly began to come up with abnormalities in the form of very clear, very smooth ice. The Russian bores had reached the upper reaches of Lake Vostok.

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest spot on earth. The lowest temperature ever recorded was in Antarctica: -129.3F (-89.6C). Average winter temperatures range from -40 to -94F (-40 to -67.8C). Winds are often up to 200 miles per hour. Most people are amazed to find that a lake of liquid fresh water lies beneath the Antarctic ice. In fact, 145 such lakes have so far been discovered. The lakes remain liquid only because the water is pressurized by the immense weight of the ice above, lowering the freeze temperature to 30 degrees. Residual heat from the earth’s core adds the few precious degrees needed to keep the water from freezing. That in itself is not the most amazing thing about Lake Vostok, however. It appears that Lake Vostok has been isolated from the atmosphere and any possibility of contamination for up to two million years! This opens the possibility of scientific exploration in an environment uncontaminated by any event in recent global history.

Science has long suspected the possibility of under-ice lakes in the Antarctic; NASA space photos have shown abnormalities in specific areas since at least the 1970s, leading researchers to believe under-ice water was possible. In the case of Lake Vostok, ice core borings under the Russian Vostok Research Station reached the top, frozen layer of lake ice in 1996 and stopped boring until scientists could determine the best way to proceed without possible contamination of the pristine water. Through the use of radio-echo soundings and sonar, the unseen Lake Vostok shows one area to be 1640 feet deep. Estimates of the size of Lake Vostok give a possible depth of up to 3000 feet deep and 30 miles wide by 140 miles long.

Because the water itself has yet to be reached, speculation suggests that research may eventually find some forms of life existing in the pitch-dark, highly oxygenated lake. Upper ice layer cores have shown several forms of unusual organisms that apparently came from the lake itself and were frozen by contact with the ice cover. Researchers are excitedly speculating that the conditions within Lake Vostok may closely resemble those of the frozen below-surface lakes indicated on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. They hope further research into Lake Vostok and the other newly-discovered lakes may give valuable information into conditions under which life may exist in space.

The discovery of such Antarctic lakes is growing yearly, with experts estimating there may be a total of up to 500 such lakes deep under the ice. It is speculated that many of these lakes may be interconnected with their own hydrologic system between them. Because these are freshwater lakes, they were obviously formed while the continent of Antarctica was still a temperate landmass. In the distant past, Antarctica was a part of a major land mass called Gowanaland that broke up to form the separate continents by way of continental drift. Over millions of years, Antarctica drifted farther south, becoming first a tropical continent, then experiencing a temperate climate. Australia, one of its nearest neighbors, broke away to remain a warmer continent. Plate tectonics and the earth’s magnetic field eventually pushed Antarctica to what is known as the south pole. Ice began to form and eventually encompassed the entire continent. Fossilized plant remains from two to five million years ago suggest that this ice cap expanded and receded several times over the millennia. A few dry valleys west of McMurdo Sound lose snow to evaporation each year, leaving high, rocky valleys in which rivers occasionally run for short distances. This area also contains salty lakes with a salinity higher than that of the Dead Sea. The mummified bodies of seals have been found here, hundreds of miles from the oceans. Much is known of Antarctica’s past, and much, much more remains a mystery. Lake Vostok is part of that mystery.

The rewards of scientific exploration of Lake Vostok are many: the opportunity to examine the water itself, locked away from the atmosphere for over two million years, is expected to give much information about atmospheric changes in the past. The sediments below the lake may be a treasure trove of fossils, ancient bacteria and rudimentary life forms. The single-cell organisms expected to be found in the water itself will yield much information about life forms that exist without sunlight or nutrient sources except for chemicals in the water. The exploration itself is being approached with extreme caution to prevent external contaminants from entering the water, with specialized exploration tools being developed. As Lake Vostok is located in the sector of Antarctica that is claimed by Russia, it is expected that they will take the lead in such endeavors. For their part, Russia is anxious to bridge the last few feet left in boring to explore the waters. Other countries involved in Antarctic research are expressing the need for caution.

In spite of the lack of dry land, tourism to Antarctica has grown every year since 1966. More than half of the visitors have arrived from the United States, but tourists the world over see an Antarctic Tour as the ultimate adventure. There are a number of tour and cruise operations that explore Antarctica, either alone or as part of a cruise package. No tours currently approach the interior research station where Lake Vostok is located. Many tours concentrate on the wildlife viewing opportunities in the oceans around Antarctica. The entire coastal area is an international whale sanctuary and many varieties can be seen here. Six species of seals, 35 kinds of seabirds and 17 species of penguins inhabit the shores and the coastal waters. Tours usually concentrate on the Antarctic Peninsula, jutting from the mainland toward Argentina 1000 miles away. The peninsula extends out of the Antarctic circle and is more temperate, with better viewing opportunities for wildlife and even some vegetation. Islands surrounding the mainland are also very productive areas for viewing native and visiting wildlife.

Most tours spend the majority of the visit on-board ship, with short visits to land. Even so, there are concerns that the budding tourism industry will disturb the region’s delicate ecology. Tourism bureaus warn that prospective tourists make sure they are utilizing a recognized tour operator due to the danger inherent in such a trip: rescue is very difficult in the distant waters and every contingency must be planned for to keep passengers safe. Small tour operators have in the past failed to take the necessary, often redundant rescue and safety precautions to ensure a safe trip, causing tourists to be rescued only with great difficulty.

Lake Vostok is certainly one of the remarkable lakes of the world. Visiting it is currently nearly impossible, unless one is part of a Russian research crew. Instead, research a trip to Antarctica and make sure you are prepared with all the necessary cold-weather gear you will need and have selected the perfect tour operator. Make friends with a penguin, visit a whale. It’s the trip of a lifetime!

Things to do at Lake Vostok

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Wildlife Viewing

Lake Vostok Photo Gallery

Lake Vostok Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 4,500,000 acres

Maximum Depth: 3,000 feet

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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