Against vast whiteness of Antarctica, Blood Falls bleeds a deep dramatic red. The colour comes from iron-rich ancient seawater trapped under the ice for 2 million years. For the first time, scientists have been able to take a sample from deep under the ice.
The five-story tall Blood Falls was first discovered in 1911. In 2004, a team including Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist now at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, sampled the microbial life at the mouth of the falls. Because the microbes oozing out normally live in dark, oxygen-less, and extremely salty places, Blood Falls is a unique place to study extremophiles outside of their inaccessible natural habitat.
Mikucki went on to publish her work in Science, but there was still a problem. Exposure to the light and oxygen at the mouth of the falls could skew the results. This winter (or summer in Antarctica), she returned with a team and the IceMole, which the Antarctic Sun describes:
The IceMole is a long rectangular metal box with a copper head and ice screw at one end capable of melting its way through ice – but not just straight down like a conventional electro-thermal drill. Differential heating at the tip allows IceMole to change directions. It looks a bit like a very large hypodermic needle poised to inoculate a glacier.
Using the IceMole, Mikucki's team directly sampled a major vein that leads from the buried brine reservoir to the falls. (The reservoir itself is even further up the glacier and buried below even more ice, making it a considerable challenge.) To locate the liquid veins and guide the IceMole, the team used thermometers placed in boreholes in the ice.
The team will be analysing these new, uncontaminated samples for chemical content and microbial life. Blood Falls is pretty much unlike any other place on Earth, so the extremophiles that live in it, isolated for millions of years, are likely to be pretty unique, too. [Antarctica Sun]
Top image: Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation