Blood Falls: Origins and Life in Subglacial Environments

Blood Falls sitting at the terminus of Taylor Glacier on GlacierHub
Blood Falls sitting at the terminus of Taylor Glacier, spilling its bright-red discharge onto Lake Bonney (Source: German Aerospace Center DLR/Flickr).

Amid Antarctica’s vast stretches of glittering white snow and ethereal blue glacier ice is the famous Blood Falls. Situated at the terminus of Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Blood Falls, which is an iron-rich, hypersaline discharge, spews bold streaks of bright-red brine from within the glacier out onto the ice-covered surface of Lake Bonney.

Australian geologist Griffith Taylor was the first explorer to happen upon Blood Falls in 1911, during one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions. At the time, Taylor (incorrectly) attributed the color to the presence of red algae. The cause of this color was shrouded in mystery for nearly a century, but we now know that the iron-rich liquid turns red when it breaches the surface and oxidizes––the same process that gives iron a reddish hue when it rusts.

The discharge from Blood Falls is the subject of a new study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, researchers sought to discern the origin, chemical composition, and life-sustaining capabilities of this subglacial brine. Lead author W. Berry Lyons of The Ohio State University and his co-researchers determined that the brine “is of marine origin that has been extensively altered by rock-water interactions.”  

Researchers used to believe that to be that Taylor Glacier was frozen solid from the surface to its bed. But as measuring techniques have advanced over time, scientists have been able to detect huge amounts of hypersaline liquid water at temperatures that are below freezing underneath the glacier. The large quantities of salt in hypersaline water enable the water to remain in liquid form, even below zero degrees Celsius.

IceMole at Taylor Glacier on GlacierHub
Overhead view of the IceMole, as it gradually descends into Taylor Glacier, melting ice as it goes (Source: German Aerospace Center DLR/Flickr).

Seeking to expand on this recent discovery, Lyons and his co-researchers conducted the first direct sampling of brine from Taylor Glacier using the IceMole. The IceMole is an autonomous research probe that clears a path by melting the ice that surrounds it, collecting samples along the way. In this study, the researchers sent the IceMole through 17 meters of ice to reach the brine beneath Taylor Glacier.

The brine samples were analyzed to obtain information on its geochemical makeup, including ion concentrations, salinity, and other dissolved solids. Based on the observed concentrations of dissolved nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, the researchers concluded that Taylor Glacier’s subglacial environment has, along with high iron and sulfate concentrations, active microbiological processes––in other words, the environment could support life.

To determine the origin and evolution of Taylor Glacier’s subglacial brine, Lyons and his co-researchers pondered other studies’ conclusions in comparison to their results. They decided the most plausible explanation was that the subglacial brine came from an ancient time period when Taylor Valley was likely flooded by seawater, though they did not settle on an exact time estimate.

An aerial view of Taylor Glacier and the location of Blood Falls on GlacierHub
An aerial view of Taylor Glacier and the location of Blood Falls (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

In addition, they found that the brine’s chemical composition was much different than that of modern seawater. This suggested that as the brine was transported throughout the glacial environment over time, weathering contributed to significant alterations in the chemical composition of the water.

This study provides insights not only for subglacial environments on Earth but also potentially to other bodies within our solar system. Seven bodies, including Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), Enceladus and Titan (two of Saturn’s moons), Pluto, and Mars are thought to harbor sub-cryospheric oceans.

Lyons and his co-researchers concluded that this subglacial brine environment likely is conducive to life. The ability of sub-cryospheric environments such as this one to support life on Earth hints at an increased possibility of finding life in similar environments elsewhere in our solar system.

Roundup: Blood Falls, Protecting North Cascades’ Glaciers, and Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

This week’s Roundup covers discovery of what causes the reddish tint of “Blood Falls,” the Taylor Glacier’s terminus in Antarctica, a bill passed by the US Senate that could protect glaciers in North Cascades National Park, and ICIMOD’s newly published Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

Scientists Determine the Geochemistry of Antarctica’s Blood Falls

From Journal of Geophysical Research: Geosciences: “Blood Falls is a hypersaline, iron‐rich discharge at the terminus of the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica…Our results provide strong evidence that the original source of solutes in the brine was ancient seawater, which has been modified with the addition of chemical weathering products.”

United States National Science Foundation's helicopter at Blood Falls on GlacierHub
One of the United States National Science Foundation’s helicopters, with Blood Falls clearly visible (Source: German Aerospace Center/Flickr).

 

Good News for Glaciers in North Cascades National Park

From the National Parks Traveler: “Strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate has reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protected Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks from mining on their doorsteps, designated some 1.3 million acres of wilderness, and called for a study into potential units of the National Park System, though the House of Representatives still needs to take up the measure.”

Cache Col Glacier on Mount Formidable, in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State on GlacierHub
The Cache Col Glacier on Mount Formidable, in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State (Source: jaisril/Flickr).

 

Assessing the Value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya

From ICIMOD: “This assessment report establishes the value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) for the 240 million hill and mountain people across the eight countries sharing the region, for the 1.65 billion people in the river basins downstream, and ultimately for the world. Yet, the region and its people face a range of old and new challenges moving forward, with climate change, globalization, movement of people, conflict and environmental degradation. At the same time, we also see incredible potential to meet these challenges in a sustainable manner.”

Scenic view of the Hindu Kush mountain range on GlacierHub
Scenic view of the Hindu Kush mountain range (Source: 401st_AFSB/Flickr).

 

Photo Friday: Exploring Antarctica

The United States Antarctic Program houses a comprehensive photo library containing more than five hundred photos of Antarctica’s glaciers and icesheets, allowing the public to explore the continent’s unique ecology and ice-covered landscape. Enjoy the photos below.

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The second photo showcases Blood Falls at the terminus of Taylor Glacier. To learn more about the scientific process behind the glacial tounge’s vibrant coloring, check out this past GlacierHub article on Blood Falls.

Many thanks to Peter Rejcek and the National Science Foundation for allowing us to use these photos.

Photo Friday: The Science Behind Blood Falls’ Unusual Coloring

This Photo Friday, enjoy stunning photos of Blood Falls – an unusual glacial tongue off of Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica. Far from the typical, pristinely white colors of glaciers, Blood Falls sports a trickling red tongue, sometimes invoking its namesake in blood red, other times in a fainter, more subtle burnt orange. Check out the photos below.

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Blood Falls’ unruly color is caused not by red algae, as early Antarctic pioneers once believed, but by iron-rich, hypersaline water buried deep below the glacier. This saltwater originates in a subglacial pool (of unknown size) that sits below thick, 400 meter-thick ice. This iron- and salt-rich water sporadically emerges from small fissures in the thick ice. Upon contact with air, the iron ions immediately oxidize, which creates their vibrant, red color. Check out this article from Science Daily and Ohio State University for a more detailed explanation. 

Griffith Taylor, an Australian geologist that was the first to explore (and name) the Taylor Valley region, discovered Blood Falls in 1911.