Thicker Than Water? Antarctica’s Amazing Ecosecret


(image via: Wikipedia)

While we may think that we understand how life on Earth works, there are still many mysteries out there to make us question everything. Blood Falls is a waterfall in Antarctica that spews blood-red water from five stories up. It was first discovered in 1911, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists have begun to dig into just how significant the location really is – both for understanding life on Earth and for speculating about life on other planets.


(image via: Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Blood Falls offers an interesting and wholly unusual way for researchers to study microbial life in glacial Antarctica. Scientists have long been curious about whether there might be microbial life surviving in the frozen continent’s subglacial lakes. But testing the waters has proven extremely difficult as extremely thick ice and concerns about contamination have stalled any possible research. So Blood Falls, a naturally-occurring outflow of saltwater from the lake beneath Taylor’s Glacier, offers a unique opportunity to look at what might be going on under the surface of the ice.


(image via: Atlas Obscura)

What researchers found was truly amazing. The waters beneath Taylor’s Glacier are a kind of ancient time capsule where a community of microorganisms was able to develop and evolve in an environment not found anywhere else on Earth. When the lake was trapped under the glacier some 1.5 – 2 million years ago, some simple life forms were trapped in it. The subglacial lake contains no oxygen, but is home to at least 17 different types of microorganisms. The water is hyper-salinated (very salty), and its unusual coloring is due to its high iron content, which instantly rusts upon being exposed to air outside of its closed-in origin, creating the blood red waterfall. The strange and inhospitable conditions in the subglacial lake had led researchers to wonder just how all of those microorganisms could have survived in the extremely cold, airless, completely dark environment for so long.


(image via: Science)

The working theory is that the organisms evolved to use sulfate to “breathe” the ferric iron, and lived on the very small amounts of organic matter that were trapped in the subglacial pocket with them millions of years ago. The discovery is significant because similar conditions are present on some extraterrestrial bodies; knowing that such life forms exist here on Earth make it easier to believe that somewhere out there in space, there could be similar colonies of microbes surviving at extreme temperatures with no oxygen and no light.