Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mountains of Madness: Scientists Poised to Drill Through Ice and Into Antarctic Gothic Horror

Illustration: Simon Lutrin/Wired
What might lurk beneath Antarctica’s 5 million square miles of ice was the subject of speculation by sci-fi writers in the 1930s. One of the icy products this subgenre of Antarctic Gothic horror spawned is HP Lovecraft’s novella, The Mountains of Madness, in which scientists drill beneath Antarctica’s ice — only to discover horrid things preserved there. Now, scientists are finally enacting Lovecraft’s scenario: Over the next several weeks they are drilling into three subglacial lakes hidden beneath thousands of feet of ice in Antarctica.
What they will find as they sample the lakes and send cameras into their bellies remains to be seen. But one thing is already clear: Lovecraft was actually right about far more than his readers could have realized.
In Lovecraft’s story, a team of researchers from Miskatonic University flies into an unexplored region of Antarctica and bores through the ice. They discover fossil dinosaur bones with disturbing puncture and hacking wounds that cannot be attributed to any predators known to science. Soon after, they uncover the source of some of those wounds: fossils of a leathery-skinned beast with a “five-ridged barrel torso … around the equator, one at [the] central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges are five … flexible arms or tentacles.” The beast’s body is topped by a “five-pointed starfish-shaped” head.
The fossils aren’t quite dead.
As they thaw in the sun, the beasts reawaken. They slaughter 12 members of the expedition, carefully dissecting one of them and carting away another as a brown-bag lunch.
Two surviving members of the expedition find an ancient city entombed in the Antarctic ice sheet which once belonged to the beasts. There, they discover a disturbing truth: This race of five-armed Elder Ones had arrived from space over 600 million years ago. They spawned all life on Earth, including that destined to evolve into humans … in order to provide a source of food.
Lovecraft wrote Mountains of Madness at a time when Antarctica’s interior remained mostly blank. Airplanes had only just begun to venture inward from the coasts — Robert Byrd made his famous, first-ever flight over the South Pole in 1928 — and Lovecraft’s novella, written in 1931, echoes that expedition. It’s easy to smirk at Lovecraft’s five-armed monsters, described ad nauseam, including precise dimensions in feet and inches. It’s easy to conclude that Lovecraft tried too hard to invent something that was truly alien.
But the ensuing decades have shown that Lovecraft was right on one profound matter: Antarctica’s cold wastes do indeed preserve some very old things, some of them dead — and some, still alive.
Geologists exploring one end of the Transantarctic Mountains (perhaps Lovecraft’s “mountains of madness”) have found shreds of plants, dead for up to 20 million years, protruding from the gravel and fluttering in the wind. These mosses represent the last stand that plants made on the continent before being extinguished by endless winter. The subsequent cold and dry have preserved them from decay. Plop a bit of this moss into a bowl of water and its delicate leaves and stems inflate like soft sponges. The scattered twigs of southern beech trees that are found here still contain enough organic matter that they smolder and smoke if placed over a flame.
Not all of the deep-time holdovers are dead, though. Antarctica’s cold coastal waters preserve an ecosystem like no other Earth. Scientists call it Paleozoic, reminiscent of between 250 and 540 million years ago. It is dominated by echinoderms, the ancient phylum of animals including starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and lily-armed crinoids, whose bodies have five-fold symmetry — which brings us back to Lovecraft’s race of five-tentacled Elder Ones mummified beneath the ice.
“They sound like echinoderms to me,” said Richard Aronson, a veteran Antarctic marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology. “Hilarious.”
Lovecraft points out that his Elder Ones inhabited the deep sea before emerging onto land. He goes to great lengths to describe the holes at the top of their heads, analogous to the water circulation pores in starfish. The author may have been more correct than he ever knew.
Lovecraft wasn’t the first author, or the last, to tell of scary things in Antarctica.
In 1938, several years after Lovecraft wrote Mountains of Madness, John W. Campbell published Who Goes There — a novella that became the basis for two famous movies, The Thing from Another World, and The Thing, released in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively. And a century earlier, in 1838, Edgar Allen Poe published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In this book, a ship penetrates deeper into the southern ocean than ever before: The ice eventually gives way to warm seas and subtropical islands, populated by hostile natives reminiscent of those described by early European explorers in the Pacific.
The seas surrounding Antarctica were little known when Poe published his book. But by the time Lovecraft wrote his novella, multiple visits had been made to the continent, forcing the monsters to retreat into the poorly mapped interior, and under the ice. It may be time for the monsters to retreat once more.
Image: NASA
A combination of ice-penetrating radar, seismic sensing, and laser altimetry has revealed well over 100 subglacial lakes hidden beneath Antarctic’s ice. Between now and the end of January, teams from the United States, Russia, and Britain are drilling into three of them.
The British team is preparing to drill into Lake Ellsworth, which sits beneath 10,000 feet of ice and has not seen the light of day for millions of years.
This week, a convoy of tractors will depart from the American-run base McMurdo Station. Those 13 tractors, towing 24 massive sleds of equipment and fuel exceeding half a million pounds, will cross 900 miles of ice before stopping at a nondescript spot 370 miles from the South Pole. There, almost in sight of Lovecraft’s “mountains of madness,” beneath 2,500 feet of ice, sits Lake Whillans, which has not seen daylight for 500,000 to a million years. Two kerosene-fueled generators, totaling nearly half a megawatt, will power a hot-water drill. Once activated in mid-January, that drill could bore an 18-inch-diameter hole into the lake within as little as one day.
At the same time, the Russians are drilling just above Lake Vostok, which sits under 12,350 feet of ice and has remained isolated from the outside world for up to 30 million years. The drillers at Vostok will extract fresh bits of ice, frozen lake water that gushed into the bottom of the borehole when the lake was first punctured last February.
The light that these explorations shed on Antarctica’s sunless waters will drive the monsters further underground.
The subglacial lakes will probably be found to harbor microbes, but much more. Finding those organisms will reveal plenty about life’s limits, particularly, about the ability of ecosystems to survive in places with minimal nutrients and without sunlight as an energy source. This will provide clues to what life, if any, could survive in liquid oceans that lurk beneath many miles of ice in other parts of the solar system, on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
The teams are sterilizing drill equipment to avoid contaminating the pristine subglacial ecosystems, using a combination of ultraviolet light, hydrogen peroxide, and water filtration. But their work is still bound to have impacts on the ecosystem of fictitious monsters.
Aspiring sci-fi horror writers needn’t necessarily forsake Antarctica altogether, says Reed Scherer, a paleontologist from Northern Illinois University, who is part of the team drilling into Lake Whillans. But monsters capable of ripping heads off or chasing down frightened geologists as they flee on snowmobiles will require more carefully though-out habitats. That kind of stuff requires a speedy metabolism. “In order for something to have a high enough metabolic rate that it would be scary to us, it would have to have heat,” says Scherer. Volcanoes sealed under the ice sheet could provide one possible niche, he says. “There’s lots of water and a heat source for things to have a high metabolic rate.” Aerial surveys of irregularities in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields have revealed a handful of possible volcanoes beneath the ice of West Antarctica.
Monsters of the Lovecraft variety — the kind that will butcher a tenured university professor and take him along as camping provisions — might also find credible habitats on Europa or Enceladus, at least until space probes can disprove their existence.
But even as scientific insight banishes bone-crunching monsters from Antarctica, it could also lay the groundwork for new ones. Even just a little new information from the lakes could fuel a new generation of science fiction, points out Brent Christner, a microbiologist with Louisiana State University who will help to identify and culture whatever microbes are found in Lake Whillans this year.
Microbes could turn out to be the ultimate monsters in this scenario.
Jemma Wadham, a researcher at the University of Bristol in Britain, has determined that a large reservoir of methane may sit under Antarctica’s ice sheets, produced by microbes that have gnawed in the darkness for eons on the organic matter of dead ecosystems that were plowed under by glaciers. As warming causes those glaciers to thin, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, could seep up through the ice — billions of tons of carbon that could accelerate global warming in ways that models haven’t anticipated.
Drilling into Lakes Vostok, Ellsworth, and Whillans and measuring the gases, minerals, and microbes present there will help to test predictions of methane. Sci-fi writers inspired by the exploration of subglacial lakes may well make a new round of predictions about what Antarctica might conceal beneath its ice.
Some of those predictions will be wrong — others, like Lovecraft’s echinoderms, might one day turn out to be right.


  1. I read a good novel recently, called Antarktos Rising. By Jeremy Robinson. The plot is similar to this, great book, he also has 4 other books in the series, but the first book can stand alone. When scientists go exploring, they have a BIG surprise waiting for them.

  2. Sounds cool, I like stories that occur in harsh environments, especially cold ones..