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Why is Antarctica Hemorrhaging 'Blood'? Experts Claim Unknown Life

Apr 29, 2015 04:01 PM EDT
blood falls
(Photo : National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek)

Antarctica is often referred to as the White Continent, and aptly so. Covered in vast sheets of ice and pure packed snow, it is a dazzling wonderland that often get's no darker than a light and stony gray. That's why the infamous Blood Falls is so disturbing to see. Located at the tongue of the Taylor Glacier, a slushy waterfall flows a vivid crimson - not unlike the color of blood. Now, using state of the art technologies and their own intuition, researchers are using the Falls to find new life.

Initially, speculation was easy. For as long as explorers have known about the Blood Falls, they have also known the obvious: Antarctica can't really be bleeding.

The unsettling landmark is actually just a waterfall that has been stained red with high levels of oxidized iron. This iron, in turn, comes from bedrock just below the glacier's surface. Of course, for so much iron to be present, more than just your run-of-the-mill erosion must be occurring. That's why it has long been suspected that the bedrock also plays host to complex and unique microbial communities that help facilitate this weathering.

However, it was thought that if this is true, these ecosystems of running groundwater and microbes are small and isolated - much like the microbial beds that can be found at the bottoms of the White Continent's 800 meter-deep lakes.

Now a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications suggests just the opposite, detailing how the Blood Falls' groundwater community might be but a hint of a far more extensive world beneath the White Continent's snow and ice. (Scroll to read on...)

Scientists collect data from an AEM sensor at Bull Pass in the Wright Valley in McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.
(Photo : J. Mikucki) Scientists collect data from an AEM sensor at Bull Pass in the Wright Valley in McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

Tracing a Bloody Trail

"New data suggests that there is a connection between the lakes and the ocean, which is very interesting and potentially a game changer in how we view the geochemistry and history of the lakes," Peter Doran, a hydrologist from the University of Tennessee, said in a statement.

Using an impressive airborne imaging system for the first time in Antarctica, Doran and his colleagues have discovered a vast network of unfrozen salty groundwater that may support this previously unknown world; and amazingly, the vast majority of it is located under the coldest and driest desert on our planet - the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

"These unfrozen [brines] appear to be relics of past surface ecosystems, and our findings provide compelling evidence that they now provide deep subsurface habitats for microbial life despite extreme environmental conditions," the study's lead author Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, explained in a statement.

But how did the researchers find these groundwater systems? After all, the dry valleys ecosystem resembles conditions on the surface on Mars - completely desolate, without life and unfrozen moisture.

The scientists reportedly used SkyTEM, a wide and airborne electromagnetic sensor that was suspended beneath a helicopter as it flew low paths over the harsh and often rugged terrain of the Dry Valleys and Taylor Glacier. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : L. Jansan)

This allowed the team to see brines up to 1,000 feet below the valley's surface, extending from the valley all the way to the glacial coasts (~7.5 miles), where they contribute to the Blood Falls' unending stream of crimson water.

"It may change the way people think about the coastal margins of Antarctica," Mikucki added in a separate release. "We know there is significant saturated sediment below the surface that is likely seeping into the ocean and affecting the productivity of things that feed ocean food webs. It lends to the understanding of the flow of nutrients and how that might affect ecosystem health."

What Was That About Mars?

Interestingly, the researchers press that this work not only tells us about our own planet, but may also help reveal that life - at least on a microbial scale - is even possible elsewhere in the solar system. Mars in particular boasts conditions that are extremely similar to the Dry Valleys.

"Over billions of years of evolution, microbes seem to have adapted to conditions in almost all surface and near-surface environments on Earth. Tiny pore spaces filled with hyper-saline brine staying liquid down to -15 Celsius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit, may pose one of the greatest challenges to microbes," explained coauthor Slawek Tulacyzk, a glaciologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Our electromagnetic data indicates that margins of Antarctica may shelter a vast microbial habitat, in which limits of life are tested by difficult physical and chemical conditions." (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: National Science Founation]

And if life can thrive in the harshest region of the White Continent, who's to say it cannot thrive on the Red Planet and beyond? While Mars has many rovers on its surface with orbiters circling above, none of the crafts boast instruments like the SkyTEM. However, NASA's Curiosity rover recently found evidence in Gale Crater that there is liquid water in Martian soil that comes and goes in unusual vanishing acts.

"Gale Crater is one of the least likely places on Mars to have conditions for brines to form, compared to sites at higher latitudes or with more shading," Alfred McEwen, of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a past statement. "So if brines can exist there, that strengthens the case they could form and persist even longer at many other locations."

And if Blood Falls and the Dry Valleys have taught us anything, it's that where there are brines, there can even be life.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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