Antarctica is a place of mystery and wonder, home to many unique phenomena of nature. New research published in “Nature Communications” argues that the icy continent might actually possess a vast underground system of rivers of liquid salt water and underground lakes – all teeming with microbial life. What’s more, the unique, above-ground feature of Antarctica’s coast, known as “Blood Falls,” might be a feature of this subterranean world.
Research conducted by a team of scientists in Antarctica discovered that Blood Falls, a rust-red natural feature, visually similar to a waterfall, is actually underground saltwater coming up through the rocky surface of the ground.
The blood falls’ color is produced by brine, or salt water coming up from rock, mixed with iron from the bedrock below. As bacteria slowly eats away at the rock, iron is released into the brine. This mix of salt and iron creates a rust-like color when exposed to oxygen on the surface.
Blood Falls is part of Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier, and flows into Lake Bonney in one of the continent’s dry valleys.
“We found, as expected, that there was something sourcing Blood Falls,” study author Jill Mikucki of the University of Tennessee explained. “We found that these brines were more widespread than previously thought.
They appear 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.”
The team also discovered briny water flowing beneath the surface of the Taylor Glacier at least 3 miles deep and possibly more. What’s most fascinating is that salt water engenders microbial life.
“Over billions of years of evolution, microbes seem to have adapted to conditions in almost all surface and near-surface environments on Earth. Tiny pore spaces filled with hyper-saline brine staying liquid down to -15 Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) may pose one of the greatest challenges to microbes,” Slawek Tulaczyk, the study’s coauthor said. “Our electromagnetic data indicate that margins of Antarctica may shelter a vast microbial habitat, in which limits of life are tested by difficult physical and chemical conditions.”
“Blood Falls is the only known surface manifestation of these deep brine systems and has been shown to contain a viable ecosystem with numerable microbial cells,” continues the study. “Blood Falls reveals how microbial metabolism can release iron from underlying bedrock, which is ultimately discharged to the surface or below ground to Lake Bonney.”
The discovery of a possible underground world of living creatures could hold significant value for determining the possibility of subterranean life on other planets bearing harsh conditions, similar to those in frozen Antarctica.