Antarctic mystery solved

Darby Dyar, Mount Holyoke College Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy, was part of a team that solved a nearly century-old mystery of “Blood Falls” in Antarctica.

Antarctica is the last place on Earth anyone would suspect of having a connection to Mars. Antarctica is a chilly landscape of ice and snow, and Mars is commonly known as “the Red Planet.” 

However, during a 1911 expedition to Antarctica, researchers discovered a “bleeding” glacier they dubbed “Blood Falls.” The mystery of its blood-red appearance would remain unsolved — until now. A team of researchers, including Mount Holyoke College Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy Darby Dyar, conducted a full analysis of the glacier’s mineralogical composition. 

“Blood Falls,” it turns out, is home to miniscule iron-rich nanospheres that come from ancient microbes. These nanospheres also contain silicon, calcium, aluminum and sodium, and turn the subglacial water bright red when they meet oxygen, sunlight and warmth for the first time. 

The waters under the glacier host bacteria strains that may not have changed for eons. Understanding this highly unusual environment and these lifeforms could cast light on the search for life on other planets with inhospitable environments. 

It also suggests that there might currently be microbial life on Mars that remains undetected by robots such as the Mars Rover.

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