Extreme Weirdness: Antarctica's "Blood Falls"

There is a glacier in Antarctica that seems to be weeping a river of blood. It's one of the continent's strangest features, and it's located in one of the continent's strangest places -- the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a huge, ice-free zone and one of the world's harshest deserts. So imagine you're hiking through this...

...which has been kept ice-less since God was a child because of something called the katabatic winds, which sweep over the valleys at up to 200 mph and suck all the moisture out of them. Anyway, you're hiking along, passing dessicated penguin carcasses and such, and you come to this:

blood falls

A bleeding glacier. Discovered in 1911 by a member of Robert Scott's ill-fated expedition team, its rusty color was at first theorized to be caused by some sort of algae growth. Later, however, it was proven to be due to iron oxidation. Every so often, the glacier spews forth a clear, iron-rich liquid that quickly oxidizes and turns a deep shade of red. According to Discover Magazine:

The source of that water is an intensely salty lake trapped beneath 1,300 feet of ice, and a new study has now found that microbes have carved out a niche for themselves in that inhospitable environment, living on sulfur and iron compounds. The bacteria colony has been isolated there for about 1.5 million years, researchers say, ever since the glacier rolled over the lake and created a cold, dark, oxygen-poor ecosystem.

Even weirder: scientists think that the bacteria responsible for Blood Falls might be an Earth-bound approximation of the kind of alien life that might exist elsewhere in the solar system, like beneath the polar ice caps of Mars and Europa.

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January 28, 2010 - 5:57am
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