A glacier that bleeds or a glacier that weeps blood – this sounds pretty much like a description of an eerie fantasy story or an extract of a vampire tale. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this is not a supernatural fantasy that we are talking about. It is real. However, the so called blood isn’t real blood. It is something else. It is blood-like color of flowing water from a glacier that gives it the name – Blood Falls. Let us learn 30 interesting Blood Falls facts and find out what really happens there and why the water is tinted into the blood red hue.
Interesting Blood Falls Facts: 1-10
1. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica is a big glacier named Taylor. From the Taylor oozes out a nearly frozen waterfall which is bright red in color.
2. The color of the waterfall resembles the color of blood. This is why it has been named as Blood Falls and Taylor is known as the glacier that weeps blood or the glacier that bleeds.
3. Just to let you know, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys are one of the most hostile environments on planet Earth and still, scientists have found out that the water from Blood Falls, which is unique for being almost devoid of oxygen, is the home for 17 different types of microbes.
4. The red water oozing out from the glacier flows onto Taylor Valley’s West Lake Bonney’s frozen surface.
5. The water oozing out from the glacier’s tongue is hypersaline and is rich in iron.
6. It was Griffith Taylor, an Australian geologist who first found the Blood Falls back in 1911 while exploring the glacial valley. That’s why, both the glacier and its valley are named after him.
7. The question was, what caused the blood red color? Initially pioneers blamed it on red algae but later studies revealed that the color was because of iron oxides present in the water.
8. The Blood Falls is five-story high and sits in Earth’s one of the most inhospitable regions. Let us clarify a bit. In East Antarctica is an area known as Victor Land. In Victoria Land is what is known as McMurdo Dry Valleys or simply Dry Valleys. In the Dry Valleys is the Taylor glacier and the Taylor Dry Valley. Thus, the Blood Falls is somewhere in the middle of vast and completely inhabitable area.
9. In 2009, Jill Mickucki, a geomicrobiologist from University of Tennessee proposed a theory to explain the blood red waterfall. Since then, her explanation has be considered as the most viable explanation for the phenomenon.
10. It was Jill and her team who conducted experiments on the Blood Falls’ water to find that there is barely any oxygen in it and the team found at least 17 different types of microbes thriving in the water.
Interesting Blood Falls Facts: 11-20
11. Based on the test results, Mickucki proposed that somewhere deep underneath the glacial ice is a trapped body of water that is some two million years old. It is this trapped water source that provides the water for Blood Falls.
12. There is a very interesting explanation as to how it all began. Scientists say that some 2 million years ago when the Taylor glacier was approaching during the so called Snowball Earth period, an ancient saltwater lake was sitting right on the path of the glacier.
13. Over years, the glacier slid and moved over the lake, trapping the waterbed massive chunk of ice. Ever since then, the saltwater lake stayed trapped in there and so did the ancient microbes community that thrived in the water body.
14. As the glacier covered the entire lake beneath hundreds of meters of ice, the lake was completely cut off from sunlight and oxygen supply. This pushed the microbes’ community to the very edge of extinction.
15. With no sunlight and oxygen, photosynthesis was completely out of question for them. So, they had to adapt to a completely new method of survival. To make things even worse for those microscopic organisms, the water trapped deep below gradually lost all the dissolved oxygen, making it virtually oxygen-free water.
16. On top of that, the water was extremely saline (twice as much as sea water) and had extremely low temperature. The extreme salinity of the water prevented it from freezing into solid ice all these years.
17. Coming to the ancient microbe, Mickucki initially thought that they reverted to sulfate ions for survival. Many bacteria today are known to live on sulfate ions (SO42-).
18. However, after conducting proper tests, Mickucki found that the water of the Blood Falls did not have any hydrogen sulfide! Why hydrogen sulfide? That’s because when bacteria and other microbes use sulfate as energy source, they convert the sulfate ions into sulfide ions (S2-). These sulfide ions are detected as hydrogen sulfide in water. Interesting, hydrogen sulfide was absent in waters of Blood Falls.
19. To rule out the possibilities of any mistakes, Mickucki conducted further tests and this time on the microbes that came out from deep below along with the water of the Blood Falls. Interestingly she did not find dsrA (a particular group of genes that help microbes to use sulfate ions as energy source) in the genome of these primordial microbes.
20. Mickucki took another step and analyzed the different types of sulfate isotopes present in the water and made and astonishing discovery. Based on the proportions of the isotopes, she realized that the sulfate ions in the water have not really depleted over last two million years.
Interesting Blood Falls Facts: 21-30
21. Based on the findings, Mickucki concluded that the ancient microbes use a completely different form of survival strategy in which they convert the sulfate ions (SO42-) into sulfite ions (SO32-) instead of sulfide ions (S2-).
22. The Taylor glacier scrubs the bedrocks and releases ferric ions (iron) which is denoted by symbol (Fe3+). This released iron then reacts with sulfite and through the process of oxidation. After the reaction, sulfite is converted back into sulfate and ferric irons are converted into ferrous ions (Fe2+).
23. So basically, these ancient microbes use small amounts of oxygen from the sulfate ions and the iron is used to replenish the lost oxygen by replenishing the sulfate ions. Thus, it has been the same oxygen present in minerals that has been recycled for millennia.
24. The question is, how do the microbes achieve this? Upon proper study, scientists found an enzyme known as PAPS that allows the microbes to accomplish this amazing form of metabolism. PAPS stands for phosphoadenosine-5′-phosphosulphate-reductase.
25. Basically, scientists are more puzzled about multiple things. First, the water present deep down below the glacier (at the depths of 400 meters) is devoid of external oxygen sources, making the conditions anoxic. It is not normal for ferrous ions (Fe2+) and sulfate ions (SO42-) to coexist in anoxic conditions. This means that iron and sulfur interact in biochemical cycles that are poorly understood.
26. Second thing that scientists are having hard time to understand is the metabolic process of these ancient microbes. This type of metabolic process has never been seen before. Thus, scientists think that understanding the biome of this ancient water body trapped in a biological time capsule can be the key to understanding alien life forms in other places like Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
27. Coming back to the Blood Falls, the question that we need to answer is, ‘what gives the water its distinctive blood red color and how does the water come out from the trapped lake in the first place?’ The answer to the second part of the question is the water from the super salty lake below the glacier comes out from a fissure or a crack in the glacier. Luckily, water can come out and nothing can go in, keeping the ancient biome free of any contamination.
28. As far as the first part of the question is concerned, the answer lies in the ferrous ions (Fe2+) which are nothing but iron.
29. As the water comes out, the iron comes in contact with air and rust is formed. It is this rust that gives the waterfall its unique blood red color.
30. In case you plan on visiting the Blood Falls, the only way you can reach there is by taking a helicopter ride from research stations in nearby bases. Alternately, you can board a cruise ship that is bound for Ross Sea. Just to warn you, Antarctica is not a friendly tourist spot. The average temperature there is -20°C.