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Temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above the lake have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89 degrees Celsius). Conditions were made even tougher by its high elevation, more than 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) above sea level.

The effort has drawn fears that the more than 60 tons of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling may contaminate the lake’s pristine waters. Bell said the Russian team was doing its best “to do it right” and avoid contamination, but others were nervous.

“Lake Vostok is the crown jewel of lakes there,” said University of Colorado geological sciences professor James White. “These are the last frontiers on the planet we are exploring. We really ought to be very careful.”

Lukin said Russia had waited several years for international approval of its drilling technology before proceeding. He said that, as anticipated, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole, pushing the drilling fluid up and away, then froze, forming a protective plug that will prevent contamination of the lake.

Russian scientists will remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer season comes. They reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer, when plunging temperatures halt all travel to the region.

Lukin, who made numerous trips to Antarctica, said the physiological challenges of extreme cold and thin oxygen were aggravated by isolation.

“If something happens to you or your colleague, there is no one to help,” he said. “It’s actually easier to help an astronaut in space.”

Martin Siegert, a leading scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, hailed reaching Lake Vostok as “an important milestone … and a major achievement for the Russians.”

The British are trying to reach another subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth.

“The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments,” Siegert said in an email.

Americans scientists are drilling at Lake Whillans, west of the South Pole.

Some voiced hope that studies of Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will advance knowledge of Earth’s own climate and help predict its changes.

“The clues to how Earth may respond to the continuing impact of humans, particularly fossil fuel emissions and related climate change, are housed in the records of past climate change in Antarctica,” said Mahlon Kennicutt II, Texas A&M University professor of oceanography, who leads several Antarctic science groups.

“A view of the past gives us a window on our planet’s future,” he said.

Russian researchers plan to continue exploring with robotic equipment that will collect water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake, a project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty organization.

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