Antarctica's Blood Falls

by mdr on Aug. 30th, 2013

In the harsh and inhospitable environment of Antarctic, there exists a bizarre waterfalls from which blood-colored water flows. Known (not surprisingly) as Blood Falls, the strange phenomenon was first discovered back in 1911 by Australian explorer Griffith Taylor who came upon the remarkable waterfalls seeping from the face of a glacier now called Taylor Glacier in his honor. But even more bizarre than the waterfalls itself, is what causes it to flow red.

A subglacial lake buried 400 meters beneath the glacier lacks heat, oxygen, and light. But an unusual group of microbes living within its waters have somehow adapted a way to survive in the harsh and super-salty environment by "breathing" iron or sulfur and converting those elements into energy. The high iron content, which the glacier accumulated by scraping up the bedrock, interacts with the air (oxidation) staining the ice around the outflow in a deep rust color.

The microbes have been trapped in the lake beneath Taylor Glacier for about 3 million years, and analyses found them to be similar in their robustness to microorganisms living in equally hostile environments in the depths of Earth's oceans. Jill Mikucki, a geomicrobiologist from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville discovered 17 types of microorganisms in water samples she collected from the lake.

The microbes seem alien in their behavior and could provide new insight into how organisms might be able to survive in the harshest of environments. They also enhance the possibility of finding similar life on Mars or other inhospitable bodies populating our Solar System.

SOURCES and LINKS
Weather Channel story
Washington Post story
Blood Falls photos at Atlas Obscura

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