Believe it or not, Antarctica is not completely covered in ice (it just mostly is). Head to the McMurdo Dry Valleys and you will find low humidity, a lack of snow and ice, and a lake that oozes red blood year round.
Is Blood Falls Made of Real Blood?
Ok, no, it’s not real blood. But it kind of looks like blood, right?
When first discovered in 1911 by Australian Geologist Griffith Taylor, the lake was thought to have been dyed red with algae. While this hypothesis could have explained the red coloring, it couldn’t explain how it flows year round, despite coming from deep beneath a thick layer of ice.
Even though this area of Antarctica is warm relative to the rest of the continent, in fact it’s a part of the 1% that isn’t completely covered in ice, temperatures can still get down to -75 degrees Fahrenheit (-60 degrees Celcius).
So how does the lake flow in such extreme temperatures? Blood Falls is extremely salty, and the red color comes from iron that has oxidized and rusted on the surface.
How Did Blood Falls Form?
Glacier water is fresh, made from hundreds of thousands of years of frozen snowfall. So if Blood Falls is extremely salty, more than twice as salty as ocean water, it must be coming from somewhere else.
Scientists trashed the algae hypothesis and replaced it with the idea that a pool of water was sealed beneath Taylor Glacier roughly 2 million years ago.
Similar to a few other places known to have been sealed off from the outside world, life evolved independently inside this isolated subglacial ecosystem.
Microbes trapped underneath the glacier have survived despite no light, no free oxygen, very little heat, and no contact with the outside world. These microbes are microscopic worms and bacteria, and consist of at least 17 unique types.
It is believed they live via a somewhat confusing process of utilizing existing sulfate to breathe in ferric ions, something not found anywhere else on the planet.
The falls are not always flowing, and scientists haven’t proven why this is the case. It is also unknown how big the underground pool of water really is.
That being said, the falls always flow outwards, likely due to immense underground pressure. Because of this, water is able to flow above the surface without contaminating or affecting the microbial life within.
What This Tells Us
Mars and Europa are known to have salty water underneath their surface layers of ice. Perhaps this gives insight into the possibility of life even in extremely harsh environments. Additionally, this spectacular place may give some insight into how life survived when the Earth was entirely frozen over, a time estimated to be over 650 million years ago.
While tourism isn’t abundant at Blood Falls because it’s located at the southernmost tip of the planet, and ridiculously cold, scientists visit to study and hopefully learn more about how life there exists. Additionally, tourists can visit and view from a distance via helicopter or cruise ship.