East Antarctica near the Vostok Subglacial Highlands led to the discovery of a sub-ice lake with an area of about 10,000 km2, lying underneath almost 4 km of ice and apparently close to Vostok Station. In 1993, altimetric data from satellite measurements provided independent evidence of the areal extent of Lake Vostok, thus confirming it to be the largest known sub-ice lake.

Momentum to begin direct sampling of subglacial aquatic environments has built over the last decade, and this objective has sparked a great deal of scientific interest in and debate on how to overcome the challenges associated with cleanly drilling and cleanly sampling these unique environments. In response to this debate, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR1) constituted a group for Subglacial Antarctic Lake Exploration (SALE), composed of scientists from SCAR member nations, and charged the group to begin a process of discussion and collaborative planning. The SCAR SALE group has provided international organizing and planning for the exploration of subglacial aquatic environments. The main objectives of the SCAR SALE program are to understand the formation and evolution of subglacial lake processes and environments; to determine the origins, evolution, and maintenance of life in subglacial lake environments; and to understand the limnology and paleoclimate history recorded in subglacial lake environments. One of the key scientific questions posed in the SCAR SALE program is concerned with the origins, evolution, and maintenance of life in subglacial aquatic environments. The SCAR SALE group speculated that life in subglacial lake environments could be unique; thus, any attempt to sample the water, sediment, or organisms directly should ensure that the subglacial aquatic environment is not contaminated, especially by carbon substrates that might allow the aquatic ecosystem to change fundamentally. The SCAR SALE group recommended an integrated science plan for the future to ensure that one type of investigation does not accidentally impact other investigations adversely; that sampling regimes plan for the maximum interdisciplinary use of samples; and that all information is shared to promote greater understanding. The SCAR SALE group continues to foster international coordination and collaboration; however, the group has not examined stewardship issues in depth.

Currently, no clear protocols for environmental stewardship or standards for minimizing contamination have been established for subglacial aquatic environments beyond the general guidelines of the Antarctic Treaty. This is critical because exploration of these environments is proceeding. Preparations for sampling Lake Vostok are well advanced; plans to explore subglacial Lake Ellsworth have been circulated through the international community; and two other subglacial aquatic environments are under consideration. The committee did not debate whether or not these plans should proceed and recognizes that these investigations are part of national science initiatives.


SCAR is an interdisciplinary committee of the International Council for Science (ICSU) charged with initiating, developing, and coordinating high-quality international scientific research in the Antarctic region and the role of the Antarctic region in the Earth system. The scientific business of SCAR is conducted by its Standing Scientific Groups, which represent the scientific disciplines active in Antarctic research and report to SCAR. In addition, to its primary scientific role, SCAR provides objective and independent scientific advice to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings and other organizations on issues of science and conservation affecting the management of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. In that role, SCAR has made numerous recommendations about a variety of matters, most of which have been incorporated into Antarctic Treaty instruments. Foremost among these has been the advice offered for the many international agreements that provide protection for the ecology and environment of the Antarctic. SCAR has national representation from those countries with an active scientific interest in Antarctica.

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