Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Antarctica's Blood Red Waterfall

Blood falls

Blood Falls is a natural feature of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. It is located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys at the edge of the glacier. It pours out of glacier and into Lake Bonney. Its waters are the color of blood, which is odd when you consider its surroundings. There is nothing else in the area that matches its color. The glaciers and lakes are your typical blues and whites and the valleys are brown where the wind has swept away the snow.

Scientists, researchers and explorers have been pondering the possible causes of the coloration of Blood Falls for some time now. Early on, they thought that the color might come from algae. However, algae have never been known to survive below a glacier, and Blood Falls’ source is beneath the Taylor Glacier. Then there is the fact that the water is very salty. In other words, it is seawater. What is blood red seawater doing pouring out of a glacier in Antarctica?

Barry Lyons of Ohio State University and a team of scientists did a decade long study of Blood Falls. At the study's conclusion, Barry’s answer to the mystery of Blood Falls was that part of Taylor Valley was once covered with a saltwater lake that had come in from Ross Sea. The iron in the water had settled to the bottom of the lake and was later picked up by the Taylor Glacier. Now the salty, iron-rich water is pouring out of the edge of the glacier. This next theory is based on basically the same principle, but it goes even further with the addition of something that may be even more interesting than the falls themselves.

In early 2009, Jill Mukucki from Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Studies released a paper regarding her research, and that of her colleagues, on Blood Falls. In this paper, Jill basically agrees with Barry Lyons about the source of the salt water beneath Taylor Glacier. However, the paper’s explanation of the color is largely different. Jill and her colleagues discovered microbes that live roughly 1,300 feet inside of the glacier. These microbes supposedly feed on the iron in the seawater under Taylor Glacier. By feeding on the iron, they help to break it down, which gives Blood Falls its red coloring.

These microbes may have had ancestors that were ocean life. They have apparently adapted to the lack of light (and many other things) within the glacier. They have utilized the only real resource in Taylor Glacier–the iron–and turned it into food. This is the first indication scientists have ever seen that life can exist beneath a glacier.


(Note: article has been updated. These are the original sources from 2010.)

Blood Falls, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, retrieved 1/17/10, earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=35535

Unusual Antarctic Microbes Live Life on a Previously Unsuspected Edge, retrieved 1/17/10, nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=114488

Inmar, Mason, April 16, 2009, Glacier “Bleeds” Proof of Million Year Old Life Forms, retrieved 1/17/10, nationalgeographic.com/news/.../090416-blood-falls.html

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