Antarctica’s Blood Fall | What is it really?

Astonishing findings have been revealed in the journal Nature Communications as to a spectacular discovery in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the world’s harshest deserts. What is apparently uninhabitable a land actually has life thriving in its midst: the valleys’ underground lakes might be habitat for microorganisms.

antarctica's dry valleys

Dry valleys of Antarctica. NASA Images.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica have been described as “closest of any terrestrial environment to Mars” because of their ice-free, deserted grounds.

The snow and ice are gone with the wind: the katabatic winds of speeds of up to 200 km/h carry them away from the valleys, leaving behind only a few lakes, some glaciers, and mummified seals dating back thousands of years ago. This is the view that greets the eye. However the frozen soil might be hiding much more than ‘visitors’ would have thought.

One of the hints of life is a substance resembling blood seeping out of the Taylor glacier. Bleeding Antarctica? Scientists explain that the ‘blood’ is, in fact, iron trapped in the ice. The “Blood Falls” were discovered back in 2009. They come from 4 km up in the glacier. Their source is a group of bacteria – the life form.

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The Blood Falls. Photo credits: Peter Rejcek/ National Science Foundation

Furthermore, life might be residing under the valley where lies an extensive briny water, allegedly twice as salty as seawater. A team of international scientists have detected the latter’s presence. They found water in its liquid form 300 meters underneath the frozen surface. Microbiologist Jill Mikucki who is part of the team believes that the deep brine ecosystem includes similar microbial populations as seen in groundwater.

An airborne electromagnetic sensor system was used to detect the microorganisms. The electromagnetic responses given off the ground were recorded were a six-sided sensor installed under a helicopter that flew over the valleys. The findings helped to make the distinction between electrically conductive brine-saturated sediment and resistive ice-bearing formations.

The scientists thereafter deduced that extensive aquifers might exist in those valleys.

The DNA analysis of the Blood Falls was used to corroborate the theory put forth by the scientists; it showed that some of the bacteria might have come from relatives of marine bacteria. The hypothesis stipulates that the water found under the ground and the ice is the left-over from an arm from the ocean that once reached into that area 1.5 million years ago.

The findings might lead to important implications.

“We know there is significant saturated sediment below the surface that is likely seeping into the ocean and affecting the productivity of things that feed ocean food webs. It lends to the understanding of the flow of nutrients and how that might affect ecosystem health,” said Mikucki in a statement.

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