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The Bizarre and Mysterious Blood Falls of Antarctica

Komal B. Patil Mar 23, 2019
The Blood Falls of Antarctica refer to the oozing of red blood-like liquid from the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo valley in East Antarctica. But don't be alarmed, since it isn't really blood. Find out what exactly is the reason behind this red outflow.
The Blood Falls are a prime example of how life can exist and survive even in the most extreme conditions.

The Blood Falls are located in East Antarctica, at the tongue of the Taylor Glacier, where it flows onto the West Lake Bonney.
These valleys are some of the most arid and inhospitable places on the globe. The weather and climate is so cold, dry, and windy, that many researchers have often chanced up on mummified seals in the ancient fjords and gorges in this region. This region is also known to be a surprisingly ice-free zone.
Despite the cold conditions and geographic location of East Antarctica, it remains ice-free due to the katabatic winds. These winds are extremely cold and dry, and sweep over the valleys at speeds around 200 mph. As they travel, they absorb all the moisture in the valleys, and hence, hinder snow and ice formation.
One of the valleys comprising this region is the Taylor valley. It was discovered by the British National Antarctic Expedition, and named after Australian geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor. It extends from Taylor Glacier in the west to McMurdo Sound at Explorers Cove at the northwest head of New Harbor in the east, and is about 18 miles long.
It was once occupied by the now receding Taylor Glacier. At the west end of the valley, there exists a junction at which the Taylor Glacier meets Lake Bonney. It is at this point that the glacier exhibits the mysterious Blood Falls that gush out and flow out from fissures along the surface of the glacier.
Contrary to what the name suggests, these falls are not outflows of real blood; human, animal, or otherwise. The falls are merely called that, due to the reddish blood-like appearance of the liquid. This feature was also discovered by Griffith Taylor in 1911.

Mystery of the Blood Falls

◆ Initially, the scarlet color was attributed to the possible presence of red algae in the water. However, later investigations revealed that, the water was too unsuitable for the growth, proliferation, and survival of the algae.
Further research revealed that, the glacier had a subterranean sealed lake that dates back almost 2 million years back. The frozen glacier surrounding the lake acted as a time capsule, preserving the microbial flora and fauna within it.
◆ According to chemical analysis of the water, the lake is probably a sectioned-off arm of the ocean, which may have extended into the valley around 1.5 million years ago. Over the years, the microbial fauna of the lake have evolved and adapted to their hyper-saline (highly salty), extremely cold, and anaerobic environment.
These anaerobic conditions are due to the sealed-off nature of the lake, and the high amounts of salt concentration is due to a process called salt cryo-concentration. It refers to the process where salty water is cooled extensively, pure ice crystallizes, expelling the dissolved salt into its surroundings.
◆ The freezing of saltwater to form the glacier probably expelled the salts into the encapsulated lake, which therefore became hyper-saline. This water, when examined, showed the presence of high concentrations of sulfate and ferrous ions.
Hence, when this water spews out of the glacier's fissures, the clear liquid turns red due to the oxidization of the ferrous ions into iron oxide in the presence of atmospheric oxygen.
◆ Microbial analysis of the water revealed almost 17 different varieties of microbes. Researchers suggest that, these microbes may possess a metabolic system that allows them to use sulfate ions as a catalyst to respire with the help of ferrous ions, in order to metabolize organic matter, if any, in the lake.
This pathway is not understood or elucidated, since no such pathway has ever been observed in nature. Understanding is further was hindered due to the fact that, despite the high concentration of sulfate ions, no sulfide ions were found inside the microbial systems.
◆ In order to gain further understanding and knowledge regarding the puzzling nature of the microbes and the biochemical pathways followed by it, researchers plan to melt their way into the glacier, so as to be able to directly sample the underground lake that acts as the source of the Blood Falls.
This is essential, since any samples obtained from the falls oxidize as soon as they come in contact with the atmosphere, making it difficult to study the exact composition of the liquid.
The study of this phenomenon has major implications for future research on the survival of biological life in sub-permafrost conditions. This understanding could offer new insight towards the evolution of biological life during the periods when the Earth was covered with ice (the Earth snowball phenomenon).
It could also help in studying survivability in cold and frozen planets like Mars, and moons like Europa, with a view towards future space colonization.