The mystery of Antarctica’s Blood Falls has been solved

A bloody mystery’s been solved. But it took over 100-years to figure out what’s going on inside a glacier in Antarctica. Josh King has the story (@abridgetoland).



Media: Buzz60

The mystery of Antarctica’s Blood Falls has finally been solved – and it’s a scientific phenomenon 1 million years in the making. 

Blood Falls has long baffled researchers and spooked the general public with its gruesome red flows that ooze upon the stark tundra of Taylor Glacier. 

First discovered by Australian geologist Griffith Taylor in 1911 (for whom the aforementioned glacier is named), the fall’s fiery hue was initially believed to be the work of red algae. 

In 2003, almost 100 years after Taylor first stumbled upon the waterfall, scientists theorized that the color was due to oxidized iron and water, which was likely draining from an underground saltwater lake.

Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado College finally confirmed the oxidization theory in a study published this week in the Journal of Glaciology

  • The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are home to the Blood Falls, a red ooze that shines bright against the desolate surface. Even though iron oxide is responsible for the hue, analysis has shown that the feature does contain strange bacterial life. Photo: Post, Washington Post

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Blood Falls, Antarctica is at the head of the Taylor Valley, and is one of the most unique natural places on the planet.

Blood Falls, Antarctica is at the head of the Taylor Valley, and is one of the most unique natural places on the planet.


Photo: Alasdair Turner/Getty Images/Aurora Creative

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 


Photo: Mark Ralston/AP

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 


Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 


Photo: Mark Ralston/AP

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 

An aerial view of the Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica on November 11, 2016. 


Photo: Mark Ralston/AP



Using echolocation to track the water flow, the researchers discovered a 5 million-year-old lake beneath Taylor Glacier. According to the scientists, when the lake water makes its way to the surface – a process that takes about 1.5 million years – the brine in the saltwater oxidizes upon coming into contact with the air. 

Perhaps more groundbreaking than the source of the falls’ coloring is the discovery that water can remain in its liquid state while inside a freezing glacier. 

“Taylor Glacier is now the coldest known glacier to have persistently flowing water,” study co-author Christina Carr told News Miner, a Fairbanks newspaper.

A perpetual hydraulic system enables the water molecules to remain liquid, Carr explained. As the water freezes, it releases heat, which then melts the surrounding ice. 

The water system is also host to a series of microbes that can survive in extreme conditions. According to Forbes, these microbes could provide insight into the development of life on planets that lack an oxygen-rich atmosphere like Earth. 

Read Michelle Robertson’s latest stories and send her news tips at mrobertson@sfchronicle.com


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