I’m down here in Antarctica as the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-funded project to study Blood Falls at the terminus of the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. We’re at the terminus because there’s this really unique feature. It’s called Blood Falls, and it’s this iron-rich, saline brine that comes out of the glacier, and we believe it comes from below the glacier, but when it comes out, it bubbles over the snout of the glacier and stains the glacier this vibrant red, rusty red color.
My task is to understand how hydrology beneath the glacier may work: where does water comes from and how it actually oozes out to the surface. Last year we came with a large group of geophysicists and did all kinds of geophysical surveys to basically image and pinpoint where the water is traveling through the glacier so that this year we can have a very smart robot travel through ice and actually reach the conduit and siphon off a little bit of that water.
The IceMole project is a mechanical combination drill, with a thermal and mechanical power source. It has a melting head, which is heating power into the ice to melt away the ice. In the center of the head is a screw, which is powered by an electric motor and creates the force the head needs to melt the ice, and so we have a constant contact with the ice. By that way we have melting channel and move through the ice.
Our questions, our overarching questions, are understanding why Blood Falls exists where it does at the Taylor Glacier and how the brine changes as it comes out of the glacier and onto the surface. So we want to understand the organisms that are living in the brine, as well as the chemistry of this brine, and hopefully learn something about its origin and evolution. There’s no large animals or trees anymore in Antarctica. It’s a microbial continent, and here we have this small sample that comes out of the Taylor Glacier that we can study and learn about microbial life, so we can ask questions of how organisms can survive in the absence of sunlight, covered by a thick piece of ice. This lends itself to understanding how life might survive in a place like Europa or Enceladus.
Long-term focus is to send those probes into space on ice sheets and ice caps on the Jovian moon Europa or the Saturnian moon Enceladus. On this particular glacier, here at Blood Falls on the Taylor Glacier, there’s also like the Saturnian, there’s brine-filled or salty water-filled crevasse where we want to drive to and melt through to the ice to this crevasse to extract a sample from there. We have this small proboscis on the tip of our melting probe, which we can extend and which takes up the sample inside the IceMole and pumps it also to the surface.
After some challenges, we were finally able to attain our goal. We were able to sample some brine directly from the conduit prior to its exit from the glacier at Blood Falls. This is one of the vials of the brine that we collected. We’re interested in geochemical and biological measurements, so we want to know who’s living in this brine, something about their metabolism. We also want to know what the chemistry of the brine is, and we’re hoping we can learn more about where this brine came from. I really am grateful for the National Science Foundation for funding these interdisciplinary projects because it really allows us to tackle complex questions, and it’s really exciting science.