What’s the Deal With Antarctica’s Terrifying Blood Falls?

100 years of nightmares later ...

May 1, 2017 9:00 am

When geographer Griffith Taylor came upon Antarctica’s Blood Falls in 1911, did he think he was having hypothermal hallucinations?

The ruddy water pours out of the Taylor Glacier, an outlet of the East Antarctic ice sheet named for Griffith, in Victoria Land. But on the expanse of pristine white ice, the vivid cascade looks the site of a massacre.

Fortunately for all of our sanity, researchers already determined the coloring comes from iron oxidization. But what scientists didn’t know, up until a new study in the Journal of Glaciology was published last week, was the source of this blood-like river.

The culprit is less murder mystery and more natural history: an englacial hydrologic system of brine. In layman’s terms, using radio echo sounding, the researchers mapped out super salty, iron-rich water inside the glacier which is under pressure and eventually forced out through the falls. The natural wonder here, besides the whole blood thing, is that the water has continued flowing despite the average air temperature hovering around 1.4° Fahrenheit.

As National Geographic points out, and your winter sidewalk salting should have taught you by now, salt lowers the freezing point of water, meaning “the glacier can support flowing water and also that this is the coldest glacier on Earth with constantly flowing water — though this water is so filled with iron that it looks like something else entirely.” The heat released as the water attempts to freeze also contributes to the continuation of this subglacial network.

Elementary, my dear Taylor.

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