New study discovers Antarctica’s ‘Bleeding Glacier’

Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Now, for the
first time, scientists have traced the water under ‘Taylor Glacier’ to learn
more about the mysterious Blood Falls, in Antarctica. In the process, the
researchers discovered that briny water underlies much of Taylor Valley: The
subsurface network connects the valley’s scattered lakes, revealing that they
are not as isolated as scientists once thought.

Jill Mikucki, who led an international
research team that tested a newly developed airborne electromagnetic sensor in
Taylor Valley said, “We’ve learned so much about the dry valleys in Antarctica
just by looking at this curiosity. Blood Falls is not just an anomaly; it’s a
portal to this subglacial world. Salty water shone like a beacon”.

 The researchers found liquid water beneath
the icy soil in Taylor Valley, stretching from the coast to at least 7.5 miles
(12 kilometres) inland. The water is twice as salty as seawater, the scientists
reported. There is also briny water underneath Taylor Glacier as far back as
the instrument could detect, about 3 miles (5 km) up the glacier. Eventually,
the ice was too thick for the magnetic field to penetrate.

The flying contraption is a large, six-sided
transmitter suspended beneath a helicopter. The instrument creates a magnetic
field that picks up conductivity differences in the ground to a depth of about
1,000 feet (300 meters). 
Antarctica’s Dry Valleys are the most arid
places on Earth, but beneath their icy soils is a vast and ancient network of
salty and liquid water filled with life, according to the scientists’ findings.
The Dry Valleys are almost entirely ice-free,
except for a few isolated glaciers. The only surface water is a handful of
small lakes. Inside the canyons, the climate is extremely dry, cold and windy;
researchers have stumbled upon mummified seals in these gorges that are
thousands of years old.
Water underneath Taylor Valley could have
turned extremely salty in two ways: The brines could be due to freezing and
evaporation of larger lakes that once filled the valley. Or, ocean water may
have once flooded the canyons, leaving remnants behind as it retreated. The new
findings will help researchers to pin down the valley’s aquatic history.
Notwithstanding,  there is life in this extreme landscape, as
bacteria living under Taylor Glacier stain its snout a deep blood red. The
rust-coloured brine, called Blood Falls, pours into Lake Bonney in the southern
most of the three largest Dry Valleys. The dramatic colours offer shocking
relief to senses overwhelmed by the glaring white ice and dull brown rocks.
To this, Mikucki said, “This study shows
Blood Falls isn’t just a weird little seep, it may be representative of a much
larger hydrologic network”.
Also commenting on the blood falls, Dawn
Sumner, a geo-biologist at the University of California, Davis, who was not
involved in the study, said, “I find it a very interesting and exciting study
because the hydrology of the Dry Valleys has a complicated history and there’s
been very little data about what’s happening in the subsurface”.
Scientists are also intrigued by the new
results because the Dry Valleys are considered one of the closest analogues to
Mars that are located on Earth. Similar briny groundwater could have formed on
Mars when the planet transitioned from having liquid water to a dry
environment, said Sumner.
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