Antarctica's 'Blood Falls' hint at potential for life on Mars

A new study suggests that Antarctica's desert hides interconnecting ice-cold waterways harboring microbial life, as may exist on other planets.
By Kathy Fey | Apr 29, 2015
Some of Earth's most extreme deserts lie in the McMurdo Dry Valleys area of Antarctica. Previously assumed to be lacking both moisture and life, these regions now appear to be hiding cold, salty groundwater and microbial life suited to survival in extreme conditions.

One striking feature of the McMurdo Dry Valleys is an enigmatic spot of color known as "Blood Falls," which appears as an oozing flow of bright red liquid over rock and ice. While iron oxide is the cause of the red color, the ooze has been found to harbor bacterial life, leading scientists to explore its origins.

"I've been studying Blood Falls for quite some time, and it's always been a mystery," Jill Mikucki of the University of Tennessee said.

According to a Washington Post report, Mikucki's team used a helicopter-mounted electromagnetic sensor to assess the conductivity of the surface below that region of Antarctica. They found evidence of a large store of salty liquid water lurking beneath the surface.

"We found, as expected, that there was something sourcing Blood Falls, and we found that these brines were more widespread than previously thought. They appear to connect these surface lakes that appear separated on the ground. That means there's the potential for a much more extensive subsurface ecosystem, which I'm pretty jazzed about," Mikucki said.

Subsurface habitats harboring microbial life within a widely interconnected ecosystem provide a valuable source of study for scientists exploring the possibility of similar life existing on other planets and moons, such as Mars and Europa. "Scientists have been using the Dry Valleys to test instruments since the Viking missions," Mikucki said. "So how we detect the brines and access them is relevant to work on places like Mars."

Brines were recently detected on Mars, indicating a possibility for liquid water to exist again on Mars as it apparently once did in abundance. Some scientists believe the study of subsurface ecosystems such as are appearing beneath Antarctica will lead to the best chance at finding life on other planets.

"The subsurface is actually pretty attractive when you think about life on other planets. It's cold and dark and has all these strikes against it, but it's protected from theharsh environment on the surface," Mikucki said.

The team's findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications.

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