The Mystery Of The Bloody Glacier

May 2, 2017 By Nupur V, Young Editor
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Over a hundred years ago in 1911, something strange was found in the glaciers of Antarctica.

Griffith Taylor- an Australian Geologist, had discovered a blood red stream pouring out of the ice cascades of Taylor Glacier! Popularly known as the Blood Falls, scientists had not been able to find the reason behind the blood red liquid flowing through the ice- until recently.

 The mystery of the Blood Falls has finally been solved.

What Causes The Red Color?

When these falls were first discovered, scientists had come up with a few possibilities of what was behind the red stream.

Initially, they had believed that the red color came from a large amount of red algae concentrated in the water. Red algae contain a pigment called phycoerythrin which reflects red light, making the algae appear red.

This theory made sense, until it was later found that algae do not play a part in the red color of the flowing liquid at all. What really causes Taylor Glacier’s waters to appear blood red, is the presence of iron oxide in the liquid. The waters of the blood falls are rich in salt and iron content, and when this water comes in contact with the air, it turns red- just like rust! The water in these falls is often referred to as ‘brine’ by scientists because of the high salt content in the water. 

This reasoning behind the red colors of the falls was found back in 2003. However, the entire mystery had not yet been solved. Taylor Glacier is a 34 mile long glacier, that is about a million years old, and in an area known for its freezing cold temperatures. The area is covered in and surrounded by ice, and temperatures are too cold for water to remain in its liquid state. How is it then, that the Blood Falls are not frozen?

The Science Behind The Mystery

Formerly, scientists believed that it was impossible for liquid water to exist in freezing cold areas like this. However, there were several things that they were unaware of earlier.

Researchers at the University of Colorado and University of Alaska used a radio-echo transmitting system, to receive electrical pulses from inside the glacier, and possibly understand why the water was not frozen. This is very similar to echolocation- which is the use of sound waves to tell where objects are located, without seeing them. Just like what bats and dolphins do! The researchers found that inside the glacier, there was a network of channels and reservoirs that move the water around.

It is a well known fact that salt water has a lower freezing temperature. In addition, when any substance undergoes a change in state- for example water to ice, it gives off heat. Therefore, the brine actually warms itself up while it's freezing! How this works, is that when the brine is flowing through the Taylor Glacier, some of it does freeze. As a result of changing state from liquid to ice, the brine gives off heat. This heat is enough to keep the rest of the brine in liquid form, which is why it flows out of the glacier.

Incredible new chemistry facts found, and mystery solved!