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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Bloody Falls, Dry Valleys, & Mars

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Thursday, December 12, 2013/Categories: natural history, photography, environment

The Dry Valleys in Antarctica are one of the strangest environments on Earth. High mountains create a rain shadow blocking moisture from the East Antarctic ice sheet to cross them and reach the ocean. This creates cold, dry, valleys with extreme aridity and almost stationary glaciers cemented to the valley bedrock. Antarctica's Dry Valleys have remained ice-free for maybe 10 million years and are used as test laboratories for what Mars might be like.

Taylor Glacier is particularly odd in that it has a waterfall that looks as if bleeding, Blood Falls. The glacier is named for the Australian geologist who discovered it in 1911. Water samples from the falls and analyzed by researchers have identified multiple microbial forms. The red derives from the microbes that exist in a lake of ancient seawater under the glacier and which appear to metabolize iron in the water. The trapped saltwater is enriched by iron-containing salts that oxidize and turn blood red as it seeps down the 50 foot falls that emerge from a crack on the glacier's leading front.

Taylor Glacier and Blood Falls, Dry Valleys Antarctica  (credit: US Antarctic Program)

Because of the Dry Valleys are ice-free, super-dry, and have been for millions of years, they are considered a surrogate for what Mars might be like today. Investigations of extremophiles , or organisms that thrive in extreme environments, is one prime reason for doing bio-geological research there and learn approaches to do the same at Mars. A short video explores the idea of using extreme environments like Blood Falls as natural laboratories.

Many Martian craters show signs of something seeping down the rim of crater walls, perhaps water from an underground aquifer. Salty water has a lower freezing point than fresh water and could exist as a liquid at the atmospheric temperatures and pressure, especially at the equator. An exciting example was discovered by JPL's HiRize camera as it photographed walls and cliffs high in Newton Crater course of a complete Martian year. An animation of the photos looks surprisingly to what is observed in the Antarctic Dry Valleys.

There are heaps of strange environments to explore and extreme organisms to be discovered. Whether a bloody falls, a dry valley, or Mars canyon the mantra remains the same: follow the water!



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