Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Blood Poureth Forth - At The Mountains of Madness

Blood Falls emerging from the Taylor Glacier. Lake Bonney is in the foreground. The glacier face (not including the brown sediment) is about 50 feet high.
Lovecraft wrote a short novel about horrific happenings in Antarctica, long a place of intense fascination for him. His imagination was phenomenal, but real life Lovecraft science is amazing, too.

Scientist Finds Microbe Colony Under Half-Kilometer of Antarctic Ice
By Art Chimes
Washington, D.C.
20 April 2009

Scientists in Antarctica have discovered a colony of microbes that appear to have lived for millions of years under an ice formation hundreds of meters thick. Jill Mikucki led the international team that discovered life in a place without light or oxygen, in a briny solution so salty that it doesn't freeze even at 5 degrees below zero. At the nose, or front, of Taylor Glacier is a well-known formation that sounds like something out of a horror movie: Blood Falls. But the red ice that gives Blood Falls its name didn't scare off Mikucki.

"It's a real intriguing curiosity, and the first time I saw it ... I knew that this rust or this stain on the glacier was due to iron. I thought about, 'Hmm, what microbes are there taking advantage of that energy source?'"

The briny water that discharges at Blood Falls comes from beneath the glacier. It flows out only intermittently, so it took Mikucki several years to collect a fresh, uncontaminated sample.

She thinks the water is an ancient saltwater lake, which got trapped 1.5 million or more years ago as the glacier advanced and covered it up, sealing it and all the microscopic life swimming around in it, under the ice.

"It's undergone some pretty dramatic change," she explained. "It lost all its sunlight. It became permanently cold and dark. It's very salty. It's concentrated seawater. And so, only the strongest survived."

The briny liquid that's been trapped under the glacier is rich in iron and minerals, and it supports what could be a very large ecosystem. The bacteria that live down under Taylor Glacier are adapted to the extreme conditions, but they're not so exotic that they can't thrive in warmer environments, too.

"Some of these bacteria are incredibly resilient, and I can actually grow them on a petri dish in the laboratory. They tolerate the cold and can grow in it, but they'll do just fine at higher temperatures as well."

What would Mr. Lovecraft make of this?


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