Second Update

By Eric Smith

Having been at the base camp for almost a week already at this point, a lot of preparation and science has already gotten started. The forward team includes Nathalie (Principal Investigator) and Kevin (Limnologist). Cristian and Ernesto. Gonzalo, Felipe, and Nicolas are Logistics and Support.

Nathalie and Kevin have already visited the far side of the lake, at the base of Echaurren Glacier.  The trip over was long enough in the little zodiac boat, and made longer by the wondering whether or not the platform would still be there after a long and stormy winter on a high lake in the Andes. It was, and it was in great shape.

Official first blog post from the Planetary Lake Lander Project. 2012

By Eric Smith

There is so much to tell you about that has happened since we arrived at our Base camp in the Chilean Andes, on the shores of the Glacial Lake Laguna Negra, at 2700 meters altitude. Its hard to tell where to start, so we’ll just start posting a little bit at a time.

One of our goals for this project, besides preparing the systems to send a robotic probe to Titan, is to share our experience in the field with you, the person checking in on this blog. So any questions you have about the project, the field team, or life in general for a group of scientists deploying robots on the side of a mountain send them in, and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.

Captain’s Log # 8: Farewell

Murder in the Andes. What many thought was a cute little birdy turned out to be a vicious killer. Credit: XenoQuest Media

The camp is very quiet. Only nine of us are still here and most of the individual tents and a couple of domes are already down. I cannot believe how fast both Cristians, helped by David and Hernan, have started to stow away the scientific equipment as well. There is a mountain of bins lined up outside the dinning dome. They are waiting for…the mules (!) – maybe today or tomorrow.

I had another short night…Hard to sleep when a little someone I know who is sleeping on the cot next to mine continues to stubbornly wear his down-jacket in his sleeping bag and tosses and turns all night long. It sounds like scrubbing sand paper on dry paper. That ends up in some colorful dialogues in French between me and Edmond around 2:00 in the morning. I am not sure he heard half of what I said because his sleeping bag completely covers him and he is half-asleep anyway. Guess what? He simply turns around…and starts snoring! This is too much, this time, I can’t help and I start giggling.

I am tired, I am cold, and sleepless for another hour. As I finally start to doze off, an owl shows up next to our tent. She is probably right outside on that granite block and now she starts: Hoo-Hoo-Hoo, and then she derails. She might have a sore throat or something. That goes on for a good hour-and-a-half. She is lucky that I am too cold to get out, otherwise we would have owl’s ragout for breakfast. I am pretty sure that our cook David still has a few mushrooms left. If not, a bed of algae will do just fine. She finally goes quiet or leaves. A peaceful silence falls over the camp for a good…five minutes. Now, that’s the 5:00 am seagull. She has come every single morning, and every evening at 9:00 pm, on the clock. She is sometimes accompanied by geese and ducks, which normally I would love to hear, but right now, I just want to sleep. At least, this morning the seagull is alone. It seems that she is coming from El Yeso, the lake on the other side of the ridge, and her racket does not stop. Does she even breathe? I don’t know, but by 6:00 am, I have had it. I am getting out of the tent. Well, all is not lost. The sunrise is as spectacular as usual over Meson Alto and its glacier. I am in awe.

As the sun starts to warm up the air, the birds are also getting more active. By now, I have fully surrendered to the idea that my hope for sleep is over, and I fully enjoy watching and listening to them. Those are not much bigger than American robins. They are very colorful too. One of them has a bright yellow belly and an equally bright blue collar. Everything is more colorful here with the altitude. The flowers are amazing. I have never seen anything like them before. They look almost like miniature orchids but their stems and leaves are very different. They go from purple and yellow, to orange and yellow, blue, and white, and they beam across the white granite in ways that are unseen at lower elevation. For the small birds, while they look cute, we learned that they have a “dark” side. Gavin caught one of them killing a lizard a week or so ago. The lizard was not small at all. As luck had it, Gavin had his camera rolling at the time. That was the first time I saw this type of behavior. The bird actually held the lizard in his beak and, with repeated and swift motions, kept banging the head of the lizard against the granite block until it was dead. Then it swallowed the entire lizard in one gulp.

But this morning, I had the Mel Brooks version of the same…I went to the dinning dome and sat there for a while. I just had poured myself a coffee when one of these birds showed up and started hopping in the open space between the dome and the kitchen. It obviously had found something interesting on the ground that it had grabbed in its beak. That turned out to be a cooked spaghetti noodle that had fallen from one of the plates last night. For the next five minutes, I watched that bird kill the spaghetti, lizard-style. That changed my mood for the day!

I also have something else in mind that is lighting up my mood. Cristian is getting up early as well and has now joined me. The two of us have prepared a little surprise for Edmond. He knows nothing about it yet. He only knows that he needs to be up early following some unimaginative lie that we could come up with (e.g., we must take the tent down early). He has worked so hard to prepare his experiment in the past months…Unfortunately, the location of Station Lake on the Echaurren Valley and the dangerous access by Devil Slide has made it impossible for him to deploy it in person. He is 91 going on 92 strong, and climbs Mount Lassen without too much trouble. However, Devil’s Slide requires the kind of mobility and attention that is sometimes difficult to achieve even for people half his age. So, Chris had to deploy his experiment for him. Edmond is a trooper, and a very reasonable man. He understood the challenge and kept smiling all along, helping around the camp whenever needed, and also taking in full this landscape he told me reminded him so much of Switzerland where he was born and lived for a while.

The waters of Victoria’s Cascade, named by a team of Chileans who explored the Laguna Negra area 150 years ago, tumble into the northwest finger of the lake. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

So, this morning, since pretty much everybody is gone and all objectives have been met and then some, Cristian and I have decided to take him on a tour of the lake, to show him in particular the Cave of the Amazons, Victoria’s Cascade. We will also take advantage of being on the northwest shore to take one last look at Planetary Lake Lander and its twin sonde, to make sure that everything is alright before we leave.

Edmond shows up at 7:00 am as planned. We still say nothing. The three of us have breakfast and then Cristian disappears for a while to take a couple of batteries to the Zodiac. Edmond and I follow a few minutes later and meet him at the beach, a.k.a. Base Camp Landing.Then we finally reveal the goal of this early morning outing. Someone has a huge smile pasted on his face as he dons the Mustang suit. We want to go early not only because we still have lots of work to do to break camp, but also because good conditions on the lake might not last more than a few hours.

Off we go. The lake and the air are still. Everything is perfect. We look at the transparent water, and the algae and blocks lurking from the depths. Ducks are giving us the right of way but they don’t seem to be that concerned by our presence. I have to say that considering our speed, they really have nothing to fear. If I had the ability to walk on water, I probably would have already made it to the other side, but that’s not the case and this is certainly not the right time for a metaphysical experiment just to prove a point. Beside, for once, I simply enjoy the slow pace.

We are at the Cave of the Amazons. Cristian proceeds even more slowly (…) to avoid some large blocks only partially submerged and also to give us time to observe carefully the richness of the environment. Only two days ago I was diving here. Hopefully, the movie will turn out to be good. We look up at the various springs shooting off the basalt cliff about 100 m higher up. The grass is definitely yellow around some of them. Those would be good candidates for testing water temperature next year. Hydrothermal systems could bring warmer and more acidic waters. That could explain the stains. Whether or not that’s the case here is a question to be answered by the next field campaign.

We continue on to the cascade. We are all amazed by its size and the roar of the water falling down from up high, especially Edmond who sees it for the first time. On our way, we just passed Lake Lander, now anchored about 100 m away. Everything checks out fine. Its twin sonde is a lot closer to the cascade. We are trying to see how different the waters from the lake and the runoff are. We will log data at least for the next three months with PLL. After that, the engineers will take it back home in the US to work on its “brain”. Meanwhile, its twin sonde will continue to log in.

We take our time touring the northwest shore. Now Edmond can see Devil’s Slide for himself. He seems impressed and has a connoisseur look on his face. Since the lake is still calm, we decide to take advantage of the good conditions to do a bit of a reconnaissance and hopefully find another way to access the perched Echaurren Valley. We go slowly with the Zodiac, which allows me to see more caves to be explored. We now pass near the promontory. The access is poor and dangerous everywhere. We even venture a bit into the northeast branch of the lake for the first time, not too far though, as it is soon time to turn around.

We enjoy the way back on a very still lake. By 9:30 am we are back at camp and the three of us are happy. Edmond has a smirk on his face, we all do. Time for a more serious breakfast. We go to the lake again this time for some morning bathing. Then, Edmond goes to the tent and starts his packing. I’ll wait until he is done to start mine. Meanwhile, I am giving a hand here and there, and when I am not, I spend some time discussing with Robert and Jeff about this, and other projects. This leads into lunch. My early afternoon is busy packing, taking the tent down, folding cots. By 2:30 am, we are all on our way to the trailhead, some on foot, and some by boat…Apparently Edmond had too much fun this morning and does not want to let go. He goes with Cristian. They are in Mariner 1 and they are towing Margaritaville, which is completely filled with bins. Actually, observing the scene from up high on the trail, it seems that someone let go of Margaritaville’s rope a bit too soon. A good thing that conditions are not too windy today. Still, Cristian and Edmond have to make a substantial swing away from the shore to get the escapee back.

Edmond Grin’s stream gauge experiment, placed at the outlet to Station Lake, will measure changes in the rate of outflow from the lake. Credit: Chris Haberle.

Once I see Margaritaville secured and towed by Mariner 1, I proceed up the trail. I stop a few times to look back at Meson Alto and Echaurren. What an incredible landscape. For the sheer beauty of it, if for nothing else, it pains me to think that the next generation will never know what these glaciers looked like, or maybe only on photographs. Our planet is experiencing incredible changes at a pace that we, humans, have never experienced before. Is this the price to pay for our civilization to enter its adulthood? This seems to be a very dear price, especially for the rest of the biosphere, which should not be held accountable for our own trials and errors. Yet, we are all in this together, as currently the climate is altered and biodiversity stressed by a process whose rapidity and impact on the ecosystem are being compared to major extinctions. This will not go away just because some prefer to ignore it. Within 50 years, this planet will be very different, even warmer. There will be more pressure on water resources than before: glaciers are not replenishing, aquifers are polluted in many countries, and the human population continues to expand without control.

We just cannot simply continue to look the other way, and act like scared children who cover their eyes hoping that what scares them will magically disappear. We are confronted with an issue on a global scale that will alter our way of life soon, definitely by the next generation. Not acting now would be a crime against our own kind. We might not have the keys or the answers yet, but some have started on the path of looking at the situation right in the eyes. The last two decades of efforts are starting to pay off. Clues are appearing here and there that may help us not only to find a solution one day, but also put us in the position of asking the right questions and prevent future damage. That will require from us to reassess our needs, our place, and our responsibility with respect to the biosphere. This will take a scientific process, and simply some good sense. Hopefully, the data we collect here will make a modest contribution to this process.

The drive back to Santiago can only be a reminder of where some of the issue lies. Our descent through the old glacial valley filled with moraines and blocks rounded by torrents seems already to be a distant memory. Santiago, like many active capitals of the world, is plagued with insane traffic. We left the peace of Laguna Negra at 2:30 pm. We reach our hotel four hours later when only less than 100 km separate the lake from the capital. As usual when coming back from an extended stay in the mountain, I have a difficult time adjusting with the noise and the crowd. The warm shower is good, though. We will stay only one night. No tourism this time around. Our plane takes off at 9:15 pm the following evening, and we are back in the US and home by 11:00 am on December 17. The morning air is clean and brisk, not unlike that of the lake, where for now, PLL is a reminder that we were there. It is logging data every hour and calling “home” (at NASA Ames) every evening, sharing more knowledge about melting glaciers and climate change. In a few months, it will be proactively monitoring the environment at Echaurren, as a precursor to what, maybe some day, another Lake Lander will do on Titan.

Captain’s Log – Entry #7: Seeking Rock Glaciers

Nathalie Cabrol (r ) and Chris Haberle, during an earlier visit, make their way up the steep slopes above the northwest shore of Laguna Negra. Credit: XenoQuest Media

by Nathalie Cabrol

I was expecting to spend today packing. We are leaving Laguna Negra tomorrow. However, Robert (Jeff Moersch’s student) wants to go document rock glaciers from up close. This is the subject of his work with thermal imaging. He also wants to plan his next step for future investigations. I have to admit that I am tired and not really looking forward to ascending again the now-named “Devil’s Slide” ramp that separates the northwest shore from the perched Echaurren Valley. However, Robert does not have any experience in mountaineering and it would be unwise for him to find himself alone on that type of slope. So, last night, we organized a party of three to reach the foot of the rock glaciers we see on the satellite imagery. Interestingly, the thermal imagery from where we are on the south shore does not seem to show any substantial difference between the rest of the landscape and where we are expecting to see the rock glaciers. We will know more once we are there tomorrow…

We have an early breakfast at 7:00 am to take advantage of good conditions on the lake. Starting around 11:00 am, winds kick in and substantial waves form. The Zodiac is still a small, albeit excellent boat. Cristian will be our pilot today since Chris is leaving for Santiago with Liam, Sandy, and Gordon. Tonight, we will be only 9 at camp, which is a far cry from the 24 we started with.

The lake is quiet as we start our journey around 8:15 am. In addition to Cristian and Robert, Carlos – our doctor – is coming with us. He is a highly experienced mountaineer in the Andes. He will be additional support for Robert if need be, and also some assurance for our climbing party of three. Cristian stays on shore. He has a bad ankle.

Devil’s Slide…It did not get any better since the other day, but maybe I did! Despite the fatigue, it seems that going up on that slope wakes me up. I feel actually pretty good, steadily going up on the central dry gully, using blocks as stairs to gain ground. I am ahead of the guys by maybe 20 meters. I brought an empty Nalgene bottle that I fill with delight on the cascading waters about two-third of the way up.

Robert is doing an excellent job on his very first ascent. Carlos is not too far away from him and both advance with good assurance. Now comes the wall (well, let’s say the even-steeper-part-of-the-same-wall segment of that slope). I find my way in the wet ground, where my feet sink, giving me a bit more footing than on the slippery rocks.

Finally on top. It takes another 5 minutes for Robert and Carlos to join me. I give a high five to Robert who has a big smile pasted on his face. These are the kind of things that allow one to look back and have a sense of achievement. He will remember his first ascent, at least for the next 2-3 hours. I am very sure that this memory will be soon erased by the descent that is waiting for us on the way back. I do not mention it too much for now but he is a clever guy, and I am sure he already has a good sense of what’s in store for him from the effort he needed to put in to get up here.

Station Lake, a potential biological treasure-chest waiting to be opened. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

The Echaurren Valley is as welcoming as last time. We stop near a small stream for a 10-minute break after our ascent. What is not to enjoy here? The banks of the little stream are covered in low, yellow and white flowers, whose smell fills the air. We have made good time, and that means that we will have time to reach at least the foot of the rock glaciers. We are on the move again. Geology lessons for Robert as we pass by striated rocks. I stop on the small promontory to show Station Lake to Robert and Carlos. It lies 100 m below us. While we are watching the stream cascading in and out of the lake, I am thinking about Edmond’s stream gauge that is now logging water speed and discharge. We leave.

The walk in the valley is comfortable. We have to climb a couple of low ridges, left behind by Echaurren when the ice descended that low. Reaching the top of the second ridge, we need to make a decision. According to the satellite imagery, we have two rock glaciers about 30 minutes away from us, one to the right, and one to the left. We head for the left one, which means gaining some elevation to avoid traversing a sea of large blocks. That still requires some effort. Walking in moraine material is not exactly the best way to make fast progress but for now we have no choice. The almost three weeks of heavy duty work and diving are starting to catch up with me, and Carlos and Robert need a break too. Time to stop for another breather, and for a good sip of that clear mountain water and whatever is on my food list. I am glad to see it is cheese.

We are now close to the foot of the promontory we wanted to reach and have time. The rock glacier should be somewhere near, in theory. We sit on rocks. Instinctively, I look down to evaluate the rock diversity that surrounds us. This is when I realize that something is different. On our way here, we have observed chalcopyrite, many other iron oxide minerals, mineralization on rocks but that is different. Scattered around us, pretty much everywhere my eyes can see on that basin are varve deposits. Yes, varves! Sedimentary layers. We found the sedimentary remains of an ancient lake…

The story unraveling in the book of stone carved in those deposits is telling. The lower (older) layers are on average substantially thicker, whereas the upper (more recent) layers are much thinner with still regularly spaced thicker layers. The discharge of whatever stream that entered that lake seem to have changed drastically over time, losing its ability to transport larger grains. The recent larger layers could be related to exceptional years but their regular spacing has me thinking that we are dealing with a cycle. It could be El Niño for instance, but this is pure speculation just looking at the sedimentary rocks. The only thing I can say is that apparently the competency of the water regularly got a bit higher than average. This is well in agreement with what is known of the climate history of the area. The varves also suggest that this lake must have been closely (spatially) connected to the Echaurren glacier.

While Carlos and Robert are looking at a large dead insect in a hole in a block of lava, I am scouting around. We should be on top of that rock glacier but all I can see are rocks and dust. No sign of interstitial ice, no indication that anything is here, no water. If anything was there, it is gone. The satellite image we looked at must have been a couple of years old at most. That confirms my finding on the other side a few days before. I still take Carlos and Robert there. On that side, though, streams are abundant, which  shows that there is flow below the rocks. We will have to climb higher to find the origin of those streams but that will be for next year’s field campaign. As I predicted, Robert didn’t fail to notice how hard the ascent of Devil’s Slide was and, wisely, wants to keep some energy for the descent. Thus, we start our way back. I choose to follow the stream cascading down to Station Lake as our guide to the central valley. When I see the moraine ridge, we head west and climb a 500-m wide pile of blocks. I cannot help looking down than forward. Minerals glitter in the sun. I find two very nice specimens that I pocket. Robert is laughing. We have known each other for only a few days and he tells me the same thing my grandma told me when I was a kid, or close to. He says: “My only photos of you are with your rocks”. My grandma was always saying that I was always either looking up at the stars or down at the rocks but never in front of me. Well, guess what? You were so right, grandma…

It is time to focus again. My right knee is bothering me. I suppose I cannot blame it too much. I dislocated it 15 years ago and Devil’s Slide was bound to revive that memory. I am taking a head start because I am planning to be slow on the way down. I am also opening the way. The secret is to block any dark ideas that can come up in one’s mind about being on a 50 or so degree incline, on slippery rocks, and with a temperamental knee. I know, that’s sounds like a lot, but in fact, it produces the right effect. I am taking my time and, although extremely difficult, this descent seems less overwhelming than last time. One step at a time. I regularly look up, higher in the slope. Carlos and Robert are making steady progress. I reach the beach and Cristian about 15 minutes before them. Robert has been stellar and when he finally gets to the shore I tell him that he is now officially a field geologist. He laughs again but I have to admit that this descent would be scary for any experienced mountaineer. He did extremely well.

We don the Mustang suits once again and we are on our way off the northwest cove with the Zodiac. As expected, the waves are now splashing around us and will until we pass the promontory. Something up there has caught a ray of sun, which gets my attention. This is our meteorological station. I can only think about what its wind gauge is showing right now…After the promontory, the lake is quieter but not calm. The journey back is a bit rough but eventless in the end, fortunately.

As the hours pass, we are getting closer to wrapping up our first field campaign. Our first encounter with the lakes and the glacier have led to more questions than answers, and this was to be expected. The glacier is retreating and the rock glaciers as well. This is worrisome. On the other hand, there is definitely an abundance of life in Laguna Negra. We still do not know about Station Lake. Does abundance translate into biodiversity? That is one of the key questions. The other one is how these organisms are adapting to a habitat that is changing so quickly. Hopefully the coming two years will bring some answers.