Blood Falls gushes red water from the ice of Antarctica. It took scientists 106 years to figure out what causes its color.

Blood Falls seeps from the tip of the Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney on November 26, 2006.

Blood Falls in Antarctica seeps from the tip of the Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney on November 26, 2006.National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek

  • 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.

Blood falls on Antarctica, oozing red water

The name of the red waterfalls comes from their unusual color.Mark Ralston/AP

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.

Glacier pouring red water that looks like blood

A closer image shows salt water pouring out of the glacier.Peter West / NSF

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.

Aerial photo of Taylor Glacier

Blood Falls and Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on Friday, November 11, 2016.Mark Ralston/AP

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.

Blood Falls with orange-reddish water pouring out

Bright orange Blood Falls is visible where Taylor Glacier meets Lake Bonney.Hassan Basagic/Getty Images

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.

satellite image of Blood Falls

Image of Blood Falls taken by NASA’s Terra satellite.Jesse Allen/NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS/USA/Japan ASTER Science Team

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.”

Glaciologists collecting data near the glacier

Above, scientists collect radar data on Taylor Glacier in front of Blood Falls.Erin Petit

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.

Blood Falls microbial diagram

Cross section of Blood Falls showing how microbial communities survived.Zina Deretsky / NSF

Source: Science

Scientists believe that the lake trapped under the glacier millions of years ago was full of microbes.

Orange and red water pouring out of the glacier

Blood Fall gets its name from its fiery red.Erin Petit

“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.

Blood Falls, lake and mountains

Blood Falls overlooking Lake Bonney.Peter West / NSF

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.

The north polar ice cap of Mars

Mars has two polar ice caps. Above is the one at the north pole of the planet.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Sources: Cambridge University Press, Nature Communications

Read the original article in Business Insider

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