The Mystery of Blood Falls Finally Solved

CC BY 2.0. National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek

The source of Antarctica's eerie blood red falls has baffled scientists for more than a century; now new secrets have been revealed.

In 1911, Australian geologist Griffith Taylor stumbled upon a glacier issuing streaks of blood red mingled in its ice cascades. Initially thought to have acquired its eerie hue complements of red algae, Taylor Glacier's unique color was eventually determined to be caused by iron oxides. In 2003, researchers concluded that it was probably from the last remnant of an ancient salt-water lake that might have formed as long as 5 million years ago when the sea levels were higher and the ocean reached far inland.

Now, a study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and Colorado College describes the precise 300-foot path from beneath Taylor Glacier to the waterfall and in doing so, put one of the last pieces of the Blood Falls puzzle in place. They agree that the large source of salty water may have been trapped under Taylor Glacier for more than 1 million years.

Lead author Jessica Badgeley, who was an undergraduate student at Colorado College during the research, collaborated with UAF glaciologist Erin Pettit and colleagues to use a special type of radar to find the path of the brine feeding Blood Falls. The radar method, radio-echo sounding, uses two antenna, one for transmission of electrical pulses and the other to receive.

Blood falls

Erin Pettit, left, and Cece Mortenson collect radar data on Taylor Glacier in front of Blood Falls. (Photo courtesy of Erin Pettit)/CC BY 2.0

"We moved the antennae around the glacier in grid-like patterns so that we could 'see' what was underneath us inside the ice, kind of like a bat uses echolocation to 'see' things around it," says co-author Christina Carr from UAF.

Another discovery the team made, and a significant one at that, is that water in its liquid state can survive inside of an extremely cold glacier – something scientists previously thought was virtually impossible. Pettit explains, "While it sounds counterintuitive, water releases heat as it freezes, and that heat warms the surrounding colder ice. Taylor Glacier is now the coldest known glacier to have persistently flowing water."

While the world's glaciers still have plenty of stories, Taylor Glacier's has spilled its secrets for now, one iron oxide-tainted plume of ancient saltwater at a time.

The research has been published in The Journal of Glaciology.