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Interview

Drilling, water sampling and the possible discovery of new life forms in Antarctic subglacial Lake Vostok have been among the major scientific feats of recent years. Since the research has been fortunately conducted by Russian scientists, we speak with Dr. Valery V. Lukin, Chief of Russian Antarctic Expedition and Deputy Director of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, on the standing of Russian Antarctic exploration and the significance of Lake Vostok studies for Russian and global science.

Interview

Drilling, water sampling and the possible discovery of new life forms in Antarctic subglacial Lake Vostok have been among the major scientific feats of recent years. Since the research has been fortunately conducted by Russian scientists, we speak with Dr. Valery V. Lukin, Chief of Russian Antarctic Expedition and Deputy Director of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, on the standing of Russian Antarctic exploration and the significance of Lake Vostok studies for Russian and global science.

Dr. Lukin, how important is it for Russia to participate in Antarctic research with regards to its international standing? Do you foresee a change in the status of Antarctica and its territorial divisions?

Let me start from the end. As is known, the Antarctic Treaty has no time limit and will be in force until only two parties remain. And while it is in force, no divisions are feasible. Moreover, Article 4 of the treaty specifies international control over the continent. All territorial claims – tentatively there are seven coming from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Chile and Argentina – have been frozen. At the same time, the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. have reserved a special status, i.e. the right to claim the entire Antarctic territory. There is also the rarely mentioned "7 plus 2" format, where the extra ‘2’ countries are Russia (as the successor of the USSR) and the United States.

As for the overall role and significance of the Antarctic, just like any other segment of regional policy, the strategy is three-pronged – advancement of national security, economic prosperity, and achievement of international prestige.

In terms of national security, our priorities are formulated in Russia's Strategy in the Antarctic until 2020 and Beyond and include: 1) the preservation of the Antarctic treaty system; 2) exploration of Antarctica’s role in the global natural processes; and 3) land-based support to outer space activities, since the continent appears to be suitable for testing new space technologies and equipment. In terms of economic goals, this relates primarily to fishing in the Southern Ocean. As for international prestige, the point is to conduct scientific research at a commendable international level and with respect for environment protection measures as prescribed by the appropriate protocols to the Antarctic Treaty. A prominent example of high level Russian research is the exploration of subglacial Lake Vostok.

Photo: planetguide.ru
Dr. Valery V. Lukin, Chief of Russian Antarctic
Expedition and Deputy Director of the Arctic and
Antarctic Research Institute

What is the status of current Russian research in the Antarctic? Have we managed to sustain the Soviet positions on the ice-bound continent?

With a doubt, the footing achieved during the Soviet period was crippled in the late 1980 and 1990s. The emasculation began during perestroika in the last years of the USSR, while major difficulties occurred further in the early 1990s. However, we scientists managed to establish a working dialogue with the Russian government and to explain the geopolitical importance of the Antarctic. As a result, we remained afloat, and the Russian Antarctic Expedition (our current title after renaming from the Soviet Antarctic Expedition by Presidential Executive Order No. 824 of August 7, 1992) never ceased operations, not for year, a month or even an hour even during the most dire of times.

Of course, allocations came late, towards the year-end, which forced us out into the Antarctic under unfavorable natural and climatic conditions. But at the very least, work went on. Due to poor funding, we have had to cut back our presence. Nevertheless, we have preserved key positions and our main stations, i.e. the infrastructure we now use for advancing our interests. In 1997, the Russian Government made a crucial decision to finance the Russian Antarctic Expedition through a separate federal budget line that would shore up our operations. And the same year, another significant Government Order was issued that defined the minimum allowed parameters of the Expedition's activities. On the one hand, we had to trim down our operations to adapt to the funding. But on the other hand, the Government-ordered minimum parameters guarantee that we never fall below the established level that the budgetary allocations have been fixed at.

An upswing began in 2001. The Russian Government repeatedly enhanced our operations and in response we did our best. On June 1, 2012, Federal Law No. 50 "On Regulation of Activities of Russian Citizens and Russian Entities in the Antarctic" was signed, followed by numerous by-laws, including Government Regulation No. 28-R that specified the Expedition's key parameters in 2013-2017.

The parameters included personnel numbers at year-round Antarctic stations and during seasonal expeditions (except air and ship crews engaged in the missions), the number of year-round and seasonal field bases, the number of seagoing vessels and aircraft for expedition support, and the number of runways we should keep in operation. And these are the key criteria used to calculate our financing during future budget processes.

It is important that during the past two or three years, we have finally approached the funding level during the USSR in 1985.

Photo: telegrafist.org
Lake Vostok

Dr. Lukin, what does water sampling in Lake Vostok mean for Russian and global science?

To begin with, let's define lake. Any encyclopedia would explain that this is a water body characterized by a shoreline and a water layer. Naturally, the exploration of a lake implies researching the water layer but not the shore. Hence, exploration in the absence of water sampling and relevant contact methods is impossible. There are various remote procedures, but these might only deliver incomplete results. At the same time, contact methods like sampling make possible the evaluation of water origins, its chemical and microbiological composition, genesis, etc. Testing of sediments at the bottom uncovers the biological nature of the lake’s origin as a water body as well as that of existing life, as well as the parameters that existed in the Antarctic biological history prior to glaciation 30-40 million years ago.

What kinds of discoveries are likely to come up through the sample analysis? Are new forms of life on the line?

The February 2013 finding by Dr. Sergey Bulat of the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics that was made public on March 6 at the international conference held by RAS Institute for Space Research in Moscow suggests that this in fact could be true. Dr. Bulat has run into an absolutely unknown bacteria species, which is currently both unidentifiable and unclassifiable, i.e. nonexistent in international bacterial databases. The findings have been made with help of molecular biology at the DNA level.

Notably, these bacteria are harmless to humans as they live in the unique medium of the subglacial Lake Vostok. Raised to the surface, they find themselves in an alien habitat and die. Hence, their cultivation is out of the question.

Photo: korabli.eu
Exploratory Vessel "Academician Treshnikov"

Russian achievements in polar exploration are hardly covered by the media, sometimes less than similar foreign exploits. How would you explain the situation? Do you see ways to change it?

The question should obviously go to the Russian media, which is known for its explicit disparaging bias. Hence, if the information is free of some kind of muck, they find it dull. Nitpicking is easier than promoting science.

We are always open to journalists if addressed. All of our works and scientific news are regularly posted on the websites of the Arctic and Antarctic Research and the Hydrometeorology Center, our umbrella organization. So, anyone interested in our activities is always welcome to online coverage.

In fact, on the 12th of April 2013, the exploratory vessel Academician Treshnikov, a pioneer in Russian shipbuilding, returned from its maiden Antarctic voyage. This is the first research vessel built at a national shipyard during the 20-year-long history of the Russian Federation.

I do congratulate you with the remarkable event, and thank you very much for the interview.

Interviewer: Nikolay Markotkin, RIAC Program Coordinator

 

 

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