• Blood Falls is a natural—not supernaturalphenomenon! It is a liquid outflow at the snout of Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica. Many glaciers have icy outflows, but few of them are salty, and even fewer are red.
     
    Salt Lake
    Blood Falls is not the melted residue of Taylor Glacier, which is a typical continental glacierdescending from a plateau on the Antarctic Ice Sheet about 54 kilometers (35 miles) away. 
     
    Instead, Blood Falls is a plume rising from an ancient hypersaline lake trapped beneath Taylor Glacier’s 400 meters (1,312 feet) of ice. About 5 million years ago, the ocean flooded East Antarctica, creating a salty inland lake. Around 3 million years later, glaciers formed over the saline lake, trapping a basin of pristine saltwater that has been isolated for nearly 2 million years.
     
    As water on the surface of the subglacial lake froze, the liquid below became even saltier. As liquid was removed from the lake (to form solid ice), the lake’s salt became more concentrated in the remaining water. Today, the water is about three times as salty as the ocean—salty enough that it won’t freeze, even in temperatures dipping well below the freshwater freezing point of 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit). 
     
    As Blood Falls gushes out of Taylor Glacier, it empties into Lake Bonney, a permanently ice-covered lake. Blood Falls’ outflow helps make Lake Bonney saline, although not nearly as salty as Blood Falls’ source lake.
     
    Rust Falls
    Blood Falls source lake is not actually red. Its subglacial conditions exclude oxygen and light, but include large amounts of iron. The salty, iron-rich water only becomes red as it interacts with the oxygen-rich surface environment at the falls, a complex chemical reaction called oxidation
     
    Reddish particles form as a result of a chemical reaction between iron and oxygen. The presence of salt increases the rate of this reaction, allowing the salty water at Blood Falls to appear bright red as it trickles down the glacier.
     
    A similar oxidation process makes our own salty, iron-rich blood appear red when it comes into contact with air through a nosebleed or scraped knee.
     
    Iron is a common substance in Antarctic bedrock—actually, it’s one of the most common elements on Earth. Scientists think iron entered Blood Falls’ subglacial lake through the scraping motion of Taylor Glacier and the activity of unusual microbes called extremophiles. Extremophiles are able to withstand and even thrive in extremely harsh environments, including freezing and boiling temperatures. The bacteria that thrive near superheated hydrothermal vents in the deep sea are also extremophiles. 
     
    Most autotrophs—organisms able to produce their own energy—are photosynthetic: They require sunlight and oxygen. The extremophiles of Blood Falls, however, do not use photosynthesis. They use a more unusual process called chemosynthesis. Chemosynthetic organisms are able to convert sulfur and iron compounds (not sunlight and oxygen) into energy. As Blood Falls’ chemosynthetic bacteria extract iron from the rocks they come in contact with, they gradually erode the bedrock around the lake.
     
    Deep-Down, Outer Space
    Blood Falls is a landform of interest to Arctic explorers, glaciologists, limnologists, and microbiologists. Astrobiologists, people who study the possibilities for life outside Earth, are also interested in Blood Falls and its unusual microbe community.
     
    Blood Falls provides one model for how life can exist under ice in very harsh environments—no oxygen, no light, sub-zero temperatures. Many astrobiologists think that Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, may hold a massive liquid ocean beneath its icy crust. If life exists on Europa, it may share characteristics with the bacteria of Blood Falls.
    1. What physical processes contributed to the creation of Blood Falls?

      Answers will vary! Many physical processes contributed to the unique phenomena at Blood Falls:

      • flooding
      • glaciation
      • erosion
      • oxidation
    2. How did these physical processes shape the features of Blood Falls?

      Flooding: The ancient ocean flooding an inland valley created the salty lake that eventually became the source of Blood Falls.

       

      Glaciation: Taylor Glacier slowly covered the inland lake, isolating it from most physical processes at the surface, such as climate change. Glaciation also helped introduce iron to the subglacial lake by scraping along Antarctica’s bedrock and depositing the iron-rich rubble into the lake.

       

      Erosion: Chemosynthetic bacteria in the subglacial lake interact with sulfur and iron compounds to help erode the bedrock and create the lake’s unusual chemistry.

       

      Oxidation: As the iron-rich water comes into contact with the air, the two substances react with each other to form iron oxide, and one byproduct is a reddish coating on the iron.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    Antarctic Ice Sheet Noun

    thick glacier covering most of Antarctica.

    astrobiologist Noun

    person who studies the possibility of life in outer space.

    autotroph Noun

    organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.

    Encyclopedic Entry: autotroph
    bacteria Plural Noun

    (singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

    basin Noun

    a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    bedrock Noun

    solid rock beneath the Earth's soil and sand.

    Encyclopedic Entry: bedrock
    characteristic Adjective

    particular feature of an organism.

    chemical reaction Noun

    process that involves a change in atoms, ions, or molecules of the substances (reagents) involved.

    chemosynthesis Noun

    process by which some microbes turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates using energy obtained from inorganic chemical reactions.

    compound Noun

    substance having at least two chemical elements held together with chemical bonds.

    concentrated Adjective

    items gathered closely together in one place.

    continental glacier Noun

    ice sheet that covers an enormous area.

    descend Verb

    to go from a higher to a lower place.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    erode Verb

    to wear away.

    Europa Noun

    moon of Jupiter.

    exclude Verb

    to purposely leave out.

    extract Verb

    to pull out.

    extremophile Noun

    microbe that is able to survive in very harsh environments, such as freezing or boiling water.

    fissure Noun

    narrow opening or crack.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    glaciology Noun

    study of glaciers and ice sheets.

    hydrothermal vent Noun

    opening on the seafloor that emits hot, mineral-rich solutions.

    hypersaline lake Noun

    type of lake with a very high salt content.

    iron Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Fe.

    isolate Verb

    to set one thing or organism apart from others.

    landmark Noun

    a prominent feature that guides in navigation or marks a site.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    limnologist Noun

    person who studies lakes and ponds.

    microbe Noun

    tiny organism, usually a bacterium.

    microbiology Noun

    study of the structure, function, and behavior of microscopic organisms.

    moon Noun

    natural satellite of a planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: moon
    outflow Noun

    water, sediment, and chemicals discharged by a river or other flowing body of water.

    oxidation Noun

    chemical process of a substance combining with oxygen to change the substance's physical and molecular structure.

    oxygen Noun

    chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

    permeate Verb

    to penetrate or pass through every part of something.

    phenomenon Noun

    an unusual act or occurrence.

    photosynthesis Noun

    process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.

    plateau Noun

    large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plateau
    plume Noun

    single, upward flow of a fluid, such as water or smoke.

    pristine Adjective

    pure or unpolluted.

    residue Noun

    material left over after something has been removed.

    rust Verb

    to dissolve and form a brittle coating, as iron does when exposed to air and moisture.

    snout Noun

    end of a glacier.

    subglacial lake Noun

    inland body of fresh water that exists under a glacier or ice cap.

    supernatural Adjective

    having to do with powers not explained by science or nature.

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