Does Antarctica have red rivers?

by / Jun 01, 2022



This post is edited from an episode of the Is That True? Podcast, where host Arionne fact-checks different kid facts and questions. Today’s episode talks about red rivers in Antarctica, a topic submitted by Owen. 

Arionne: Well, speaking of going to Antarctica, TODAY is that day! We have a fact that is about that very place.


Owen: Hi, my name is Owen. I am 9 years old, and I come from Maryland. Did you know that in Antarctica, lakes and rivers are red?


Arionne: Red rivers? I’ve never seen a red river before. So, I wonder if that’s true! We’ll have to investigate.


But first, let’s talk a little bit about what we do know about Antarctica. The thing I immediately think about is just how cold it is in Antarctica. And when I say cold, I mean REALLY cold. Like, it’s the coldest continent. And the windiest. And the iciest. It’s pretty much covered by a huge piece of ice.   


And then, I think about where Antarctica is located. It’s the world’s most southernmost continent. And guess what else is there? The South Pole! Not to be confused with the North Pole, which is a different very cold place (and where some might even say that Santa lives.)


I wanted to know a lot more about Antarctica, especially, so that we could figure out if Owen’s fact is true!


So, I looked for an expert and I found Karen Romano Young, who is a friend of A Kids Podcast About. She is a children’s book author who creates a series of comics called AntarcticLog. 

Karen: Hi. My name is Karen Romano Young. 


I am primarily a children's author and illustrator, but a few years ago, I was called on to begin doing science communications from the field, which means going literally onto ships or to Antarctica or to the Arctic with scientists, and then writing about their experiences for the general public and for children. 


And at one point I began to do illustration to go along with it. I began doing comics as a way to tell some particularly difficult stories and developed that into a weekly Antarctic log science comic that is all about the Arctic, Antarctica, and climate change, which is the big topic in both those places, anywhere in the world that it's happening.


I also have a book coming out about Antarctica in the next year called Antarctica: The World's Melting Continent, where I'm telling a lot of my personal stories, as well as science stories about the frozen continent. 


Arionne: Wow. I love that. That's so cool. How did you go from perhaps writing about things that you may or may not have seen and into a world where you are actually traveling to all these places?


Karen: Well, it was. I guess first it came out of being an educational writer and scientists wanting to communicate with kids in the classroom. And so I began by doing materials that were just for the classroom from them. And then one of the things that I was being asked to do in advance of an expedition to the ocean was to interview everyone who is going to be on the ship— from the captain of the ship yo the lead scientists, to the undergrad students and lowliest, you know, person who is taking out the trash, and do profiles of them. And the very last person that I was supposed to profile was the person who was going on board to do the shipboard communications, to tell the stories back to the shore.


And the first thing she said was, "oh, I'm not going on that." And I said, "Well, they think you're going on that." And she said, "I can't go. I, you know, and I told them, and they somehow, they had miscommunicated," and this was like two weeks before they were supposed to set sail. And so I called them and I said, "This person is not available. She's not going to be part of your crew. And I don't know who you're going to find in a pinch, but I put up my hand," and they didn't have anyone else. And I already knew all the science and knew all the people because I had talked to everyone. And so they just said, okay, come. And it started from there.


And I absolutely fell in love with being in the field with scientists and with telling their stories. Amazing. 






Arionne: What a great story of how you can kind of take an opportunity and just volunteer and make it happen. Yes. So you are the perfect person for us to ask this question to. 


Is it true that in Antarctica lakes and rivers are red? 


Karen: Yes, and no, it's interesting, isn't it? That Antarctica even has lakes and rivers. Um, a lot of people get confused between the Arctic and Antarctic. Um, the Arctic is the one in the north where the polar bears are and it's a frozen ocean. So the ocean covered in ice. Antarctica is in the south where the penguins are.


And it is actually a continent of land covered in ice. And so like any land that has water, it has rivers and lakes. They tend to be frozen solid. And there's one though we know of, there might be another one that has such salty water underneath. Even though the top of a glacier is frozen the lake underneath it's salty.


And because there's a lot of iron in the rock that's around the lake, the water that flows out is red because it's full of iron oxide, which is what happens when iron hits oxygen, which has rust. Okay. So it's rust colored, really red. It's flowing down this blue, white, frozen glacier, and it, so it's called Blood Falls.


Because it really does look like something inside there. You know, some giant snow monster is bleeding. Um, but so far, and I talked to, um, Jessica Badgley, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington and who went to Blood Falls and studied it to find out what made it red and all of the science that I just told you came from her study.


And she says that there could be other places that have this salt and iron content. But right now the only one they know about is Blood Falls. 


Arionne: So YES, Owen! There is at least ONE lake and river that’s red in Antarctica. And it’s red because of the rock around it that has iron. And you know how things can get rusty!


And the super smart person who studied Blood Falls and told Karen about it is Jessica Badgeley.

Karen: So yes, the lake underneath and the river that flows out of it. And the waterfall that comes from it is blood red. But it's the only one we know about in Antarctica so far.


Arionne : So since you have been traveling to all these amazing places, we know that you have been learning a lot of really cool facts. 


Karen: I would love to share another Antarctic story. Um, I do Antarctic log comics once a week, and sometimes kids send me questions.


Um, I created a comic out of this question, which you'll see. But I also did another one in the past. A young person asked me whether it was true that on the beach in Antarctica, there are a lot of penguin heads just rolling around. Penguin heads on the beach. Um, so I knew of a scientist who had just gotten off the beach where she had been studying leopard seals for three weeks.


And so I wrote to her and I said, is this true? And she said, yeah, it actually is because if you're a leopard seal, you don't want to spend all your energy eating some bony head or some bony face. Or some bony wings, you just want to eat the fat central part of the penguin. So everything else is just lying there and yeah, you might think it was skeletons. 


And of course it is, but everything's frozen and in Antarctica. So it doesn't really decompose that quickly. So, yes. 


Arionne: Wow. I would have never guessed that!


Karen: Me neither. Me neither. It just really leads to some interesting conversations. Yeah. Amazing. 


Arionne: Out of all of these very cool places you've been going, do you have any favorites? 




Karen: I really do have a favorite. Palmer Station is one of the three United States research stations in Antarctica. There's McMurdo, that's the big one. There's the south pole, that's also [a] pretty decent size. And then there's Palmer station, which has at most 45 people. Well, you know, and that's everybody from the cook to the chief engineer, to the chief scientist.


It is a little tiny town on the coast of the Antarctic peninsula. It's absolutely beautiful. There are penguins and whales and seals all over the place. You can go out and hike up the glacier and hike out on the rocks. And when I was there working with a team of scientists, we were going out in a boat every day to basically gather water, to take a look at the phytoplankton, which are the microscopic little things that live in the water.


I really loved that. That is a treasured time in my life. 


Arionne: I love it. For those of us who may not have originally started studying science as in, we're not scientists, and we just want to know more, how would you advise us to start looking and exploring, learning from our home, with, you know, either by ourselves or with our grownups? 


Karen: Well, I am not a scientist. And I didn't even have that much science education. I'm just really curious. 


So when I heard about Blood Falls, I immediately went to the internet to look up. I'm going to go back again. When I heard the question about red rivers, I remembered about Blood Falls.


And so I went and looked it up on the internet and it led me straight to the scientists who had been, trying to find out what made it red. And I was able to get in touch with them through the internet and say, Are there other places? And can you explain this to me? Um, it's a fantastic way that we have to learn about things now.


Um, and you don't have to feel silly on the internet. You don't have to feel like, I'm a dumb person who hasn't had a lot of science background. You can just ask questions. And if there's one thing I know about scientists, they are extremely comfortable with asking dumb questions. If it was a question everybody knew the answer to, they would not be interested in it.


They're only interested in the new things that no one knows yet. And so if you ask a question about something you don't know about, you really are being a scientist in the same vein that they are, and they really will respect that. And you can learn a lot by asking those kinds of [questions].