The mystery of ‘blood waterfall’ in Antarctica has been solved

New research explains the mysterious ‘Blood Falls’ in Antarctica.

During the infamous Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica in 1911, British geologist Thomas Griffith Taylor made a mysterious discovery in the bedrock of the glacier that now bears his name: a waterfall that appears to be blood .

Released from beneath the ice at the glacier’s tongue, the water appears clear but then quickly turns crimson. For more than a century, this phenomenon, which Taylor calls “Blood Falls,” has captured everyone’s imagination and remains a scientific mystery—to this day.

Using a powerful transmission electron microscope at Johns Hopkins’ Materials Characterization and Processing facility, Ken Livi, a research scientist in the Whiting School’s department of materials science and engineering, examined solids in the Blood Falls water samples and found a lot of small iron. The rich nanospheres are oxidized, making the water appear bloody. (Nanospheres are small round objects—100 times the size of the average human red blood cell—with unique chemical and physical properties.)

“As soon as I looked at the microscopic images, I noticed that there are these tiny nanotubes and they are very rich in iron, and they have a lot of different elements inside the iron—silicon, calcium, aluminum, sodium—and All of them are diverse,” says Livi.

Livi worked on the project as part of a team that included experts at other institutions, including Jill A. Mikucki, a University of Tennessee microbiologist who investigated the Taylor Glacier. and Blood Falls for many years. Their results appear in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science.

Livi says that the nature of the nanospheres he identified went undetected not only because they were so small, but also because previous research groups believed that certain minerals were responsible for the «bloody» water and the real culprit—nanospheres—are not minerals.

“To be a mineral, the atoms must be arranged in a very specific crystal structure. These nanospheres are not crystalline, Livi said, so methods previously used to examine solids failed to detect them.

According to Livi, to understand the age-old Bloodfall mystery, you must first understand the Antarctic microbiome.

“There are microorganisms that have existed for millions of years beneath the salty waters of Antarctic glaciers. These are ancient waters,” he said.

The ancient salt and iron-rich waters under the glacier are home to bacterial strains that may remain unchanged for millennia. Scientists believe that understanding this highly unusual environment and its life forms could also inform the search for—and understanding of—life on other planets with hostile environments. similarly harsh. In fact, that’s how Livi, an expert in planetary materials, comes to solve the mystery of Bloodfall.

“With the advent of the Mars Rover missions, there was interest in trying to analyze the solids escaping from the waters of Blood Falls as if it were a Martian landing site,” he said. “What if a Mars Rover landed in Antarctica? Will it be able to determine what causes Blood Falls to be red? It’s an intriguing question and one that some researchers are looking at.»

One of them is Mikucki, whose team has previously analyzed Blood Falls samples using equipment and methods identical to those used by rovers that traverse the surface of the Earth. Red Planet. An accomplished Antarctic researcher, Mikucki was part of the team that first identified the presence of organisms living in the lake beneath the Taylor Glacier. That group has mapped the glacier’s caves and rivers with their source of water: an ancient, saltwater reservoir that holds loads of minerals collected by the ice as it crawls over the rocks below. However, the reason for the water’s amazingly bloody appearance remains unclear.

So Mikucki and astronomer Darby Dyar from Mount Holyoke University sent samples from Mikucki’s most recent Antarctic expedition to Hopkins’ state-of-the-art MCP facility to Livi, an expert in microscopy. transmitted electrons, examined and he discovered nanospheres.

Livi is confident the team has solved the Bloodfall mystery but says their research has uncovered another problem that needs to be solved.

“Our work has revealed that analysis performed by rovers was inadequate in determining the true nature of environmental matter on the planet’s surface. This is especially true for colder planets like Mars, where the materials that form can be nanoscale and not crystallize. Therefore, our methods for identifying these materials are incomplete. To really understand the nature of the surface of rocky planets, transmission electron microscopy is required, but currently it is not possible to place one on Mars,» he said.

Source: Jack Darrell for Johns Hopkins University

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