A Large Water System Has Been Found Underneath Antarctica's Blood Falls
People have been fascinated by Antarctica’s Blood Falls ever since this unusual feature was first discovered in 1911. Finally, more than 100 years later, additional research has enabled scientists to determine where this gory looking waterfall comes from. This is of great interest to everyone from tourists to members of the scientific community, and it could also have a positive impact on the research that is conducted by individuals who are legally permitted to spend a large amount of time in Antarctica.
What Makes the Waterfall Red?
There have been many theories about the water’s red color during the past century, ranging from algae to microbes. As of 2014, geologists had decided that there was oxygen free water trapped underneath the ice, and the microbes within this water were feeding on a mixture of iron and sulfur. Due to these unusual conditions, the water appears to be bleeding.
Blood Falls is approximately five stories high, and it has attracted the attention of people from all over the world. Some websites have even gone so far as to try to find a link between the unique ecosystem trapped within the Taylor Glacier and aliens. Of course, the scientific explanation for this bizarre yet intriguing aspect of Antarctic life is not only more plausible but also provides some insight into the history of the entire region.
What Did Scientists Discover?
In April 2015, Nature Communications announced that the Blood Falls origin story had been found after a study that was conducted by a team of microbiologists. The head of the team, Jill Mikucki, is the lead author of the team’s study, and what she has disclosed to the world is definitely much more interesting than originally believed.
Before the microbiologist team mounted an electromagnetic sensor onto a helicopter, it was widely thought that there was only a small lake buried underneath any icy accumulation that had built up for 2 million years. This was quite interesting on its own, especially because the lake’s position was estimated to be 400 meters (.25 miles) below the surface. Water from this lake trickles out the end of the Taylor Glacier, and this is what caused the Blood Falls to exist.
Although the basic details of this information are still true, there was one major twist found by Mikucki’s team: the water source underneath the glacier is now known to be much more extensive than previously believed. Instead of being a simple small lake, we now have evidence that there are multiple surface lakes connected together. Additionally, the brines underneath the ice host a staggering collection of life.
What is a Brine?
Any water this is extremely saturated with salt is referred to as being brine. The brines that are present underneath Taylor Glacier provide researchers with an unprecedented opportunity to study the impact of this type of living environment on the unusual microbe life that is known to live within Blood Falls. Interestingly, this part of the recent discovery actually tracks back to the websites that have theorizing about alien life.
Photo by National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek
What does Alien Life Have to Do with Blood Falls?
Mikucki’s team has not made any suggestion that there could actually be alien life living within Blood Falls. However, they have made a link between the brines underneath Taylor Glacier and what could possibly be found on Mars and Europa. In fact, some evidence has already been found that points at Mars having similar brines. In other words, the recent findings in Antarctica could ultimately end up providing NASA with the necessary building blocks to finally discover microbial life in outer space.
Is There Actually Water on Mars?
Researchers have definitively concluded that Mars once had an ocean, but the search for existing water kept coming up dry until recently. The Curiosity rover discovered the existence of perchlorates, and this is a type of salt that is able to create brine from water that is absorbed out of the atmosphere.
The current rover mission has also solidified the theory that the atmospheric conditions on Mars causes any surface water to exist in a state that is most similar to dry ice. This means that any water that does form on the surface can disappear very quickly and without being noticed by scientists who are monitoring the planet from afar. However, now that we know about the origins of Blood Falls, NASA can use this information to help them look for hidden brines that contain life. It remains to be seen if any conclusive evidence will be found, but it seems logical that Europa, which is covered in ice and oceans, could have similar geological formations.
The Impact on Antarctica
There is no reason to believe that the discovery of hidden brines will affect Antarctica in any way, aside from causing more members of the scientific community to seek permission to conduct research in this area. However, the earth is constantly changing, and there could come a time millions of years from now when the brines become exposed and offer a new habitat to salt water dwelling creatures.
In the meantime, the most meaningful impact appears to be the acquisition of new data that can be used by scientists from many fields. It is also not hard to imagine the higher level of tourism interest that would be generated by Blood Falls if this oddity’s origin story actually helps NASA find life on Mars or Europa. However, most visitors to the area will not actually see this attraction unless they take a helicopter ride.
No one is allowed to make Antarctica their permanent home, but people with a taste for adventure can experience the Ross Sea region via one of our Antarctic expedition cruises. These once in a lifetime events enable people to leave normal life behind and exchange it for seeing penguins and other Antarctic wildlife within its natural habitat. Instead of sitting behind a computer, you could spend a week or more surrounded by glaciers and the almost eerie beauty of one of the most remote places on earth. Although our Antarctic & Arctic expedition cruises do not go past the Blood Falls (Protected Area within the McMurdo Dry Valleys ASMA), these expeditions are still one of the best ways to capture stunning photographs and build memories that will last forever.