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Antarctica's 'blood falls'

Mystery of Antarctica's 'blood falls' explained

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, April 29, 2015, 7:09 PM - A new study suggests that Antarctica, one thought to be a hostile environment for life, could be lush with subterranean microbial life— and the continent's famous 'blood falls' may be a doorway into that ecosystem.

The blood falls are formed when bacteria chew at surrounding bedrock, releasing saltwater.

The saltwater then mixes with then iron present in the rocks, creating a rust colour.

A team of researchers used a helicopter to locate salt water beneath the surface of the falls, and found the water covered a much larger area than previously thought.

RELATED: Mysterious ring in Antarctica may have been caused by a meteorite

While researchers have known for some time that bacteria was present in the salt water, they had no idea how far that salt water extended.

"[the water] appear[s] to connect these surface lakes that appear separated on the ground. That means there's the potential for a much more extensive subsurface ecosystem, which I'm pretty jazzed about,"  lead author Jill Mikucki of the University of Tennessee told the Washington Post.

It was discovered the salt water extends at least 12 km inland and water beneath the Taylor glacier runs at least 5 km deep.

"These unfrozen materials 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," Mikucki said in a press release.

"We believe the application of novel below-ground visualization technologies can not only reveal hidden microbial habitats, but can also provide insight on glacial dynamics and how Antarctica responds to climate change."

Scientists say the findings provide new insight into how organisms adapt in extreme environments, and could help researchers understand how life could exist on other planets, since conditions in Antarctica's Dry Valley resembles the surface of Mars in the summer.

The complete study was published Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Photo courtesy: Credit: Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation.

Sources: National Science Foundation | University of California | Washington Post | Nature Communications


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