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Blood Falls - Antarctica

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Blood Falls

Blood Falls is an outflow of an iron oxide-tainted plume of saltwater, occurring at the tongue of the Taylor Glacier onto the ice-covered surface of West Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Victoria Land, East Antarctica.
Iron-rich hypersaline water sporadically emerges from small fissures in the ice cascades. The saltwater source is a subglacial pool of unknown size overlain by about 400 meters of ice at several kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls.
The reddish deposit was found in 1911 by the Australian geologist Griffith Taylor, who first explored the valley that bears his name. The Antarctica pioneers first attributed the red color to red algae, but later it was proven to be due only to iron oxides.


Life sure turns up in the darnedest places. The latest discovery comes from Blood Falls, a rusty red discolouration on the face of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica occasionally gushes forth a transparent, briny, iron-rich liquid that quickly oxidizes and turns red, staining the ice below .

The source of that water is an intensely salty lake trapped beneath 1,300 feet of ice, and a new study has now found that microbes have carved out a niche for themselves in that inhospitable environment, living on sulfur and iron compounds. The bacteria colony has been isolated there for about 1.5 million years, researchers say, ever since the glacier rolled over the lake and created a cold, dark, oxygen-poor ecosystem.

In the sub-glacial lake, the microbes have no chance of getting energy through photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes live off the minerals that were trapped in the lake with them, the researchers explain in the study, published in Science. It appears that energy is obtained when sulfur is cycled through different oxidation states by reacting it with iron…. The oxidized sulfur is then used to react with carbon compounds, powering the metabolism [Ars Technica].

Similar critters may have lived 600 to 800 million years ago during the harsh epoch known as “snowball Earth,” when glaciers reached into the tropics, explains study coauthor Ann Pearson. Back then, photosynthesis probably ground to a halt across the planet, and marine bacteria may have only managed to eke out a living in the same way as those living under Taylor Glacier, Pearson says. “Life in sea water, as we know it, could maintain reasonable continuity through an event like this”

Blood Falls, Antarctica is a subglacier outflow that hosts a habitat of microbes. Blood Falls is able to be seen due to the interactions between Taylor Glacier and Lake Bonney. The subglacier outflow, brine has iron in the outflow which results in the outflow appearing to being “blood like,” or a deep red. When the brine flows from the glacier and is exposed to the atmosphere, it becomes oxidized and a red salt cone that comes out of the outflow which is known as Blood Falls. The microbes that survive in Blood Falls are some of the most versatile organisms on the planet as they can survive without oxygen, using iron and sulfate to survive. As these microbes survive without oxygen, an important process for these microbes are that they are evidence of how possible life outside of earth would survive.

blood falls


Poorly soluble hydrous ferric oxides are deposited at the surface of ice after the ferrous ions present in the unfrozen saltwater are oxidized in contact with atmospheric oxygen. The more soluble ferrous ions initially are dissolved in old seawater trapped in an ancient pocket remaining from the Antarctic Ocean when a fjord was isolated by the glacier in its progression during the Miocene period, some 5 million years ago when the sea level was higher than today.
Unlike most Antarctic glaciers, the Taylor glacier is not frozen to the bedrock, probably, because of the presence of salts concentrated by the crystallization of the ancient seawater imprisoned below it. Salt cryo-concentration occurred in the deep relict seawater when pure ice crystallized and expelled its dissolved salts as it cooled down because of the heat exchange of the captive liquid seawater with the enormous ice mass of the glacier. As a consequence, the trapped seawater was concentrated in brines with a salinity two to three times that of the mean ocean water. A second mechanism sometimes also explaining the formation of hypersaline brines is the water evaporation of surface lakes directly exposed to the very dry polar atmosphere in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The analyses of stable isotopes of water allow, in principle, to distinguish between both processes as long as there is no mixing between differently formed brines.
Hypersaline fluid, sampled fortuitously through a crack in the ice, was oxygen-free and rich in sulfate and ferrous ion. Sulfate is a remnant geochemical signature of marine conditions while soluble divalent iron likely was liberated under reducing conditions from the subglacial bedrock minerals weathered by microbial activity.

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