Antarctica’s Bloody Falls. Nature’s great mystery

Krwawy Wodospad

In the heart of harsh and inaccessible Antarctica, covered with perpetual ice and snow, hides one of the planet’s most fascinating natural phenomena – the Bloody Waterfall. The red water flowing out of the Taylor Glacier, which resembles a stream of blood running down white ice, has long been the subject of research and speculation by scientists and naturalists. Was it possible to solve its mystery?

History of discovery

The story of the discovery of the Bloody Falls dates back to the early 20th century, when the last unknown corners of the Earth – Antarctica – began to be explored. During this period, Australian geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor, a member of the Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), came across one of the most unusual natural phenomena he had ever seen. Flowing out of the glacier that was later named after him, the red water created an extraordinary contrast with the surrounding white landscape. The first observations and attempts to explain the phenomenon of the Bloody Waterfall focused on its unusual aesthetics.

The red color of the water, contrasted with the white surroundings of the glacier and snow, caused much speculation. Thomas Griffith Taylor and his coauthors initially speculated that the color might be the result of red algae. This theory seemed logical, given that in other parts of the world they are credited with coloring the water. However, as research progressed and the understanding of Antarctic ecosystems improved, it became clear that the early hypotheses were not sufficient, leaving the mystery of the waterfall unexplained for decades to come and open to further research.

Blood on the snow
pic. Dene’ Miles/Adobe Stock

Breakthrough in research

In 2017. The research team, using a special ground-probing radar, discovered a network of fissures in the bedrock and tunnels in the ice, forming a hidden reservoir of saltwater – a lake trapped under a glacier 1.5-4 million years old, which feeds a waterfall at its base. The concentration of salt combined with the pressure at the base of the glacier allows the water to flow despite the low temperatures. However, the reason for the sudden color change due to air contact still remained a mystery.

In most cases, the red color of rocks or springs is caused by weathering of iron-rich minerals such as magnetite, goethite or hematite (also known as bloodstone). Research conducted in the 1960s. In the 1970s. showed only faint traces of such minerals in Taylor Glacier water samples, insufficient to explain the blood-red color. Another theory assumed a massive proliferation of red algae in the melting glacier, but although traces of carbon were found, their presence was not confirmed.

The breakthrough came only with the work of a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado College, which used a combination of analytical techniques. The authors examined water and soil samples from Bloody Falls under a transmission electron microscope (TEM), which can magnify objects up to 2 million times. They discovered tiny floating spheres just a few nanometers (a billionth of a meter) in diameter. Chemical analysis using X-rays showed that they consisted of iron, silica, calcium, aluminum, sodium and other elements. Previous studies did not detect them because they are very small and have no crystalline structure.

The study found that iron does indeed play a role in changing the color of the Bloody Falls, but not in the way previously assumed. It is not the free iron atoms or minerals rich in the metal that react with oxygen, but the iron in the nanospheres forms oxides and hydroxides as soon as the melting water comes into contact with the air. In addition, high salinity and the presence of other elements such as chlorine, magnesium and sodium can play an important role in the formation of yellow to orange iron phases, giving the water a ghostly appearance.

The Bloody Waterfall and its significance

The Bloody Waterfall, despite its remote location and inaccessible surroundings, attracts scientists from around the world eager to explore its mysteries. However, researching this phenomenon is logistically challenging and requires advanced equipment and adaptation to the extreme conditions in Antarctica. Future expeditions aim not only to further explore the Bloody Falls, but also to search for similar ecosystems that may be hiding beneath the continent’s icy surface.

This discovery is of great importance for understanding the specifics of the Bloody Falls, but also for science more generally. It provides evidence that life can exist in extremely isolated and harsh conditions, with implications for the search for life beyond Earth. Ecosystems like this one, capable of surviving without access to sunlight and at low temperatures, may also exist on other planets and moons in our solar system.

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