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The Strange and Wondrous Blood Falls of Antarctica

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Photo taken by Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation.

Photo taken by Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation.

Red in a Sea of White

The satellite image catches something unique on the bleak,white landscape of Antarctica. Seemingly, in a sea of white, there exist an area that's piercingly red, looking as if a bloody wound had been inflicted on a glacier.

Like much of the continent it's on, Taylor Glaciers in McMurdo Dry Valleys is a frozen wasteland where life barely exists and lakes and and rivers simply don't flow due to the coldness. And, by all accounts, that's the way things are supposed to be.

Except, the "blood" coming from a fissure in the glacier is flowing and not freezing. Not only that, things -- microscopic things -- live in it.

More than one mystery surrounds the Blood Falls of Antarctica. And, seemingly, when one mystery is answered, another one takes it place.

On the surface, literally, the crimson colored flow keeps going, creating a small red pool at its base. Under the surface, however, a whole unseen world of a briny lake and river are found.

Research is ongoing, and it seems that every new discovery made, gives a better picture and understanding of this unique feature at the bottom of the world.

Not Blood

First off, the blood fall is not blood. It is:

  • iron oxide-tainted saltwater that sporadically emerges from a fissure at the tongue of the Taylor Glacier and flows onto the surface of the ice-covered West Lake Bonney.
  • The water turns red when it reaches the surface of the glacier and oxidizes (similar to the process of iron rusting).

Further studies reveal that the color of the water is created by a complex system that exists within the lake. This includes a combination of high iron and sulfate concentrations and active microbiological activities.



Secondly, It is believed that this iron-rich hyper-saline water comes from a subglacial salt lake of unknown size (and possibly formed five million years ago), which is covered by 400 meters of ice.

The briny water content explains, in part, why the water doesn't freeze in a mean temperature of 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (or -17 degrees Celsius). As mentioned in writer Delany Ross's 2018 National Geographic article, the subglacial lake:

  • "has an unusually salty consistency, and because saltwater has a lower freezing point than pure water and releases heat as it freezes, it melts the ice, enabling the rivers to flow."

Red Algae Debunked

It was discovered in 1911 by the Australian geologist Griffith Taylor, for whom the valley (where the falls are found) is named after. It was discovered during one of many expeditions made to the continent.

Earlier assessments suggested that the falls were red due to the presence of red algae.This belief held for nearly a century.

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Red algae (Rhodophyta) is common and lately has been the primary source for carrageenan, a common ingredient added to food such as yogurt and pudding. It is found in most oceans and its blooms are, well, red. Hence, it was the first thing that came to the team led by Taylor when they discovered it.

Ironically, while red algae was ruled out, the idea that life had some responsibility in the process soon emerged...

In recent times, research by using samples drilled from the lake under the ice (as one sites mentions, the ice can be as thick as a three-story building) and analysis of the water debunked this belief.

Ironically, while red algae was ruled out, the idea that life had some responsibility in the process soon emerged, making the quest to solve the Red Fall riddle more complex and exciting.

Impossible for Life (or is it?)

By all accounts, the water shouldn’t hold life. The environment upon which this briny liquid comes from is oxygen-poor and extremely cold. Also, the part of Antarctica it’s located, the McMurdo Dry Valleys, is devoid of animals and complex plants. To further complicate matters, Antarctica is considered by scientists to be a frozen desert. Despite its extreme cold, it only receives 3.93 inches (10 cm) of snow each year.

Conditions below Taylor Glacier are even less accommodating for life. The area is devoid of light, making it difficult for the process of photosynthesis.

Despite these conditions, however, a recent analysis of the water revealed that it was teeming with microbial life, and has been doing so for the last 1.5 million years. How is this possible?


A Research team led by geo-microbiologist Jill Mikucki of Dartmouth College and funded by National Science Foundation, collected data from water samples that indicated that the microbes adapted by manipulating sulfur and iron compounds to survive (Staab, 2009). In other words, in place of photosynthesis, the microbes evolved in a way that they can convert Ferrous Iron and Sulfate ions to sustain life.

...a recent analysis of the water revealed that it was teeming with microbial life, and has been doing so for the last 1.5 million years.

There are several hypotheses being proposed on how the microbe came to exist under the ice. One, the Snowball Earth Hypothesis, suggests that about five million years ago, the sub-glacial lake with the ancient microbes (along with the rest of the world) had been sealed off by ice that covered the entire planet at one point. In that time, the microbes evolved independently from other similar marine organisms.

Life Thrives

The discovery of life in this fall indicates that life can exist in places and conditions that were once deemed undesirable or impossible. The microbes’ existence and abilities to survive and thrive as long as it has is still a mystery and investigation into it is still ongoing.

However, it’s a mystery that may open doors to the understanding of how life can evolve in the most inhospitable of conditions, and without the normal components essential to creating life.

For now, The Red Fall of Antarctica is a wondrous mystery full of possibilities.

Work Cited

© 2016 Dean Traylor


MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 19, 2016:

This is great hub with tons of information. Thank you

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