Blood Falls is a waterfall of vibrant red water that springs from the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.
It owes its unique color to iron salts emerging from the ice, which turn red when exposed to oxygen.
Waterfalls are home to microbes that can survive in extreme conditions without light or oxygen.
A large glacier in Antarctica produces a bright red river that oozes ice, aptly named Blood Falls. Why reddish water pours from Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney has puzzled scientists for decades.
This phenomenon was first discovered by geologist Griffith Taylor in 1911. At the time, he believed that red algae living in the water were responsible for the striking red hue of the water.
Sources: National Science Foundation, University of Alaska Fairbanks
More than a century later, scientists discovered what causes the blood river: iron salts oozing from the ice that turn red when they come in contact with the air.
In a 2017 study, scientists found that the Taylor Glacier formed about 2 million years ago, trapping a salt lake beneath it. Millions of years later, the ancient lake reached the edge of the glacier, squeezing out salt water.
Source: Cambridge University Press
In a 2015 study, scientists discovered a network of rivers flowing through cracks in the glacier using ice-penetrating radar. This means that liquid water can exist inside a very cold glacier.
Source: Nature Communications
“While it sounds counterintuitive, water releases heat when it freezes, and that heat warms the surrounding colder ice,” Erin Pettit, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and co-author of the 2017 study, said in a press release. “The heat and lower freezing point of salt water allow the fluid to move. Taylor Glacier is currently the coldest known glacier with continuous flow of water.”
Source: University of Alaska at Fairbanks
In a 2009 study, scientists discovered that the underwater lake is home to unique inhabitants — communities of microbes that can survive extreme conditions without light or oxygen. Instead, they use iron and sulfate to survive.
Scientists believe that the lake trapped under the glacier millions of years ago was full of microbes.
“Among the big questions are: “How does the ecosystem function under glaciers?”, “How are they able to survive under hundreds of meters of ice and live in constantly cold and dark conditions for extended periods of time, in the case of Blood Falls over millions of years?”, Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist and lead author of the study, said in a press release.
Source: National Science Foundation
Scientists believe that the study of these microbes will be a boon to astrobiology. They may shed light on how life might survive on other worlds with similar reservoirs of frozen water as Earth’s neighbor Mars.
Sources: Cambridge University Press, Nature Communications
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