Captain’s Log – Entry #3: The Abyss

by Nathalie Cabrol

Storm clouds gather over Meson Alto, east of base camp. Credit: Henry Bortman

We are starting to get used to the local weather pattern of morning sun and afternoon storms. We wake up in calm, crystal clear air, deep blue sky, and warming sun. By 11:30 am, the wind starts to pick up and wavelets form on the lake. By 1:30 pm, cumulo-nimbus clouds accumulate in the sky and by lunchtime, rumbling echoes in the valleys and mountains all around us. The sky is deep black, and for about two hours, thunder reigns over us. Yesterday was especially impressive. The mountains around us disappeared for a couple of hours to reappear draped in an immaculate white coat of snow. Because of our altitude, we only had rain, but it was intense at times. We also had hail for about 10 minutes. The good news is that our domes are holding up. No water inside! After dinner, the calm had succeeded the storm and the constellation of Orion could be seen upside down over our camp while Venus was setting to the west. What an amazing landscape. I am in awe. The power that nature unleashes gives us our true dimension. Without the large buildings to protect us, the technology, and all what our civilization has generated, we are naked in front of her. Yet, we are strong enough to tip her balance, and hopefully we will be smart enough to understand how to repair the damage, or at least mitigate its worst consequences for future generations.

These thoughts cross my mind this morning as I enter the lake. I am going with Gordon. Our goal is to do a reconnaissance of the shore but also go to the pontoon where Planetary Lake Lander is now setting. We go to the pontoon first. It is anchored maybe 100 m off shore. I enter the water and immediately connect with the forest of macrophytes. I have developed a technique to avoid entanglement. It is not pretty, but it works. I push the algae sidewise and make my way past them. There, I meet trout and granite blocks. The water is already over 5 meters deep. I am now making my way towards the pontoon and all of a sudden, it surrounds me, a deep dark blue. It is everywhere around me, enveloping me. I feel in another dimension, without any landmarks to keep my bearings. I just know the pontoon is 100 meters in front of me, somewhere. What a strange feeling. In a water so clear, the abyssal depth of this lake makes any sense of space and time disappear. I am floating between dimensions, with only the rhythm of my fins to let me know that there is a destination to this journey.

Then it comes. The sun must have reappeared from behind the clouds. Its rays passes through this water as if it did not exist. I can see every single one of them. I look below into the deep blue and I realize that I am casting a shadow in this no-man’s land. A white line appears in front of me, one of the anchor lines of the pontoon. We are there. I surface and see our probe right in front of me, surrounded by two red buoys. We swim around, look at the attachment points and move back to the near shore area.

Nathalie communes with Laguna Negra chara. Credit: XenoQuest Media

We spend nearly an hour exploring the shelf. I notice some very bright yellow deposits on the silty sediment. Where does it come from? I will have to ask my Spanish colleagues who are currently documenting the biology of Laguna Negra. I plan to sample this sediment but I need to get back to camp for that. That will wait until we are finished with Gordon. He wants underwater footage and for several minutes we play hide and seek behind the algae. I am following fish and while doing so, I see black deposits on the bottom.

All right, I am getting out of the water and heading back to camp. I am fetching a couple of sample bottles and make my way back into the water. I spent the morning without a lead belt but this time, this will not work for sampling. So, more adjustments and with 4 kg of lead, I have no difficulty hitting the bottom with my 5.3 mm suit. A trout looks at me while I am sampling. I am pretty sure of what she thinks but she is polite enough not to let me know. Instead, she is taking advantage of the stirred sediment to have an early lunch. What I sample looks like black goo. Once at the surface, I definitely cannot miss the sulfur smell. More samples. I am trying to get back to the water for the yellow deposits. I am getting very cold. My hands are mostly numb now and I start cramping while going down. Time to get out. More than an hour in a 13C water is taxing, even with an excellent suit. The morning has been more than productive.

Chris Hablerle (l) and Liam Pedersen prepare to sail off on a journey of discovery to Laguna Negra’s northwest shore. (Someone ought to mention that their destination is behind them.) The Mustang suits they’re wearing, which reduce exposure to cold water in the event someone falls overboard, are de rigueur fashion for long-distance trips on the lake. Credit: Henry Bortman

While we were exploring the abysses, Chris and Liam were exploring the northwest shore for possible landings and radio tests. Both were successful. Tomorrow, we are heading to the Echaurren valley on that part of the lake. Our objective will be to deploy our meteorological station, the stream gauge, and the UV dosimeter. If we have time, we will go up to the runoff produced by the melting of the ice in the rock glacier at the base of Echaurren.

Finally, Chris also took advantage of the exploration of the northwest shore to acquire some more bathymetry. The deepest low for now is close to 270 m and I am not sure we have seen the end of it. As I am getting more acquainted with Laguna Negra, I still do not know if I want to think of this lake as the Deep Blue or the Abyss. Its depth tells the tale of a time, not so long ago, when a formidable glacier was carving its way through this valley. The ice has given way to water where, for now, we stay suspended looking for answers.

Captain’s Log – Entry #2: Storm Above and Calm Below

by Nathalie Cabrol

After the storm clears, PLL Principal Investigator Nathalie Cabrol contemplates a fresh dusting of snow on Meson Alto. Credit: Henry Bortman

Anchoring down for the storm. At 3:00 pm, the sky is pitch dark around us, the wind is strong and has been for most of the night. We look at the passing clouds. For now, they have spared us but it is snowing on the glacier a few kilometers east of the camp. That 5,000 m-high mountain is substantially higher than we are. I hope that the clouds will continue to ignore us. We are being careful, stowing electronics and relocating our meteorological station away from the camp. It is not grounded yet…

Lightning and thunder now. I would hate to be on the high glacier. At the same time, the scene is surreal, with a curtain of snow passing through the granite, leaving behind a white blanket over the dark rock. This snow falling on the glacier is a reminder of a natural cycle that is fading away. Too little snow, too late in the season. This glacier still looks extremely impressive, its blue and white ice cascading on the vertiginous slope.

The storm has given us a moment to rest in our hectic schedule. Things are coming together. One week after our arrival, we have accomplished a lot and we manage to be on schedule. The bathymetry of the lake is taking shape and is spectacular. It is only a start but for the 1/10th of the lake we have covered so far, the bottom topography reveals the deposits and blocks left by the glacier when it carved the basin. If the weather improves, Chris Haberle and I should go to the “promontory” on Thursday, about 4 km away from camp, on the northern shore of the lake. We will do reconnaissance there, sampling rock glaciers downslope of Echaurren, and looking for a site to set up our experiments. As we traverse the lake to the northwest, the bathymetric system will be operating and we will acquire more data, completing the map little by little.

An underwater look at the southern shore of Laguna Negra, captured by Gordon Brown. Credit: XenoQuest Media

I had a first hand experience of the morphology and topography of the lake myself this morning. For the first time in a week, I finally had the time to don my diving suit and go for a short reconnaissance of the shore area. A number of things struck me immediately. The particular morphology of this lake makes it one of the most dangerous I have been in. There is no transition to shore. There is the shore, granite blocks and algae, and then a shelf that plunges immediately to over 20 meters depth. Only few meters away, the depth may reach 100 m or more. The maximum depth should be around 300 m. We will know soon.

The lake water is also cold, barely 13C at the surface and decreasing fairly fast downward. My suit protects me perfectly and I am only snorkeling or free diving to shallow depths. As I look around, the algae near the bottom are covered in sediment. Their presence is also limited to a belt that covers about 10 m around the shore. Overall, the lake appears somewhat desolate and a sense of sadness grows in me while I am floating above the silty lakebed. The only inviting thing about Laguna Negra is its transparency, and the trout passing by from time to time, who simply ignore me. The slope of the shelf almost looks like a wall and it is an interesting challenge to find a way back to shore. Once I find it, I still have to fight my way through the dense forest of algae to get back on land. I still cannot not resist, though, and I am back in the water right away.

Chris Haberle reviews his first successfully acquired set of bathymetry

About 50 m away from me, Planetary Lake Lander is the subject of great care. Liam and two engineers from the YSI company who joined us yesterday, Fred and Jim, are working on the pontoon, making sure that everything works perfectly before we officially start the probe. I am thinking about sneaking on them from the water but I rather not disturb them. Lake Lander has now an orange pulsating beacon beaming at night, competing with the moon. Tomorrow or the next day, we will test it for the first time in real configuration. If we are successful, we will move it to its permanent position for the next three months. This is also why we want to explore the promontory region at the foot of Echaurren because this is where we would like to anchor it.

Also, this week has seen our first rotation for the scientists. The first biologists (Erich, Ruben, and Angela) have left. They have been replaced by Alex, Yolanda, and Luis. All of them are working together in a very productive fashion. They sampled algae and water from the shore and the lake at various depths. They are sharing samples to provide a very complete analysis of the type of life there is in Laguna Negra, and its diversity.

Our seasonal research station on Laguna Negra is now working at full speed and buzzing with activity. Hopefully the storm will pass soon now. It is certainly a very different experience for me, coming from small teams at altitude to almost a village in the Central Andes. What could be an overwhelming task is made so much easier by the quality of the team members and their willingness to always help and make it happen. It is really a privilege for me to be surrounded by this gang.

Captain’s Log – Entry #1: Every Good Exploration Starts with a Mule Train

by Nathalie Cabrol

PLL Base Camp under construction on a small rise above the southern shore of Laguna Negra. Visible are the kitchen (the rectangular structure), two of the camp’s four domes, and a pair of personal tents. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

We have been at Laguna Negra for almost a week already, and this is really the first time I can sit down and take a moment to reflect on the past few days. We are back to the Andes. It has been a long, sometime painfully long process to get to this point. I look around me and I see ragged mountains of granite, glacial valleys and periglacial fills, high glaciers now perched, hanging to the edge of their lives as they are hanging to topography in their niches, receding each year a little more. These are the Andes, but so very different from those I know more than a 1600 km north, those of Licancabur and Aguas Calientes, the High Andes. They are telling the same story, only a different chapter.

At the end of the last glacial age, ice retreated and melted in the High Andes, leaving a landscape that colored the Altiplano in blue lakes and green vegetation. Aridity is now settling in. Those lakes have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing, and the vegetation is limited to low-lying bushes and  occasional flowers. The vibrant colors of the Altiplano are now signaling the presence of extremophiles that have adapted to highly saline, evaporating pools and ponds, to a UV index ranging from 24 to 29, and daily temperature variations that can be compared to that of equatorial Mars in summer.

At Laguna Negra, we are reading the previous chapter of this story. This landscape is like a time machine. Here, we are stepping 15,000 years in the past. In front of our eyes, ice is melting, glaciers are receding, leaving as they retreat pools and ponds, debris-covered glaciers, and rock glaciers, soon to be only rock and dust. The process is not foreign but its speed is alarming, and its consequences yet to be understood. Not so long ago, the waters of Laguna Negra were carrying an abundance of glacial sediment.

The Echaurren glacier that once entered the lake has retreated high up in its cirque. It is barely a ghost image of its former self. The regional map from 1930 shows the extent of its retreat. There is little left of it. Echaurren is the center of sustained attention since the water resources of 6 million Chileans depend on it. For us, we are trying to understand the impact of its disappearance on life and biodiversity for our planet here and now. We are also here to draw analogy with similar times in the past of Mars and what such periods may have meant for life, if any had developed, for its adaptation and survival. Meanwhile, we are also developing technology that hopefully one day will help the exploration of other foreign lakes, very far away from and very foreign to anything we know.

I wonder what the reflection of Saturn looks like on Titan’s lakes. Maybe we will soon know… This is how astrobiology and exploration bring together the history and evolution of the Earth, Mars, and Titan, the knowledge acquired from one helping to understand the past and future of the others with the same haunting question in mind: is Earth the only life-bearing planet going through those changes?

The exploration of Titan might, like the Wild West, have humble but hearty beginnings and there is no great exploration without a mule train. The delays of two days in our camp setting has brought some unexpected consequences, magnified by the local topography – hence the desperate measures. We need to cross a frontal moraine populated by blocks as large as houses in places to reach a flat where we want to pitch our tents. There is also about 1.5 tons of equipment for a team, which including the scientists, the engineers, and the logistical support reaches 24 persons. Well, there is no way around it. We have to do it the old way. The transfer of equipment will take 3 days.

We might be going back to the primitive but our approach is not completely stupid. Our equipment contains 3 boats. These are inflated and soon they provide some relief to our backs. We load them with the most fragile instruments and we find a landing that allows us to unload the containers about 150 meters from our campsite. That’s not perfect but certainly a lot better than crossing all these boulders. During these 3 days, there is no known means of transportation that we did not use, except maybe levitation, but I am sure willing to consider that option at this point.

After hauling a propane tank and other supplies into base camp, a mule munches grass while waiting to be unloaded. Credit: Nathalie Cabrol

What I know for sure is that the team spirit is here. Everywhere I look, tents are going up, equipment is coming in; the biolab is installed – a bit messy to start with but it is taking shape. And then, I look up and this is when I see them come. I just laugh but I do not know if it is because of the contrast between the goal of our mission and the vision of these mules showing up on the horizon with our equipment, or if I am only very tired and very thankful. In the train of mules that will arrive during these days, there is one I could not resist photographing. I called her the “turbo mule.” Our cook also needs to have his equipment and, while the mule is carrying some of our scientific equipment on each side, she also has a gas tank attached to her back. She does not care and just eat grass while the “arriero” unloads her.

After three days, our four main domes, a dozen tents, a kitchen, and a medical clinic are up and running. The view is stunning. Our camp is on the shore of Laguna Negra, directly facing the empty U-shaped valley left by Echaurren. In future logs, I will describe in greater detail this landscape and what it is revealing to us. For now, I am just enjoying it, for one first afternoon of tranquility, hearing my colleagues happily working in our camp lab, already discussing data, analyzing samples. The traffic on our radio between base camp, the team on shore, and the filming crew is as professional as that of a rocket launch.

The pontoon that will eventually form the floating base of the Planetary Lake Lander robot splashes down into the waters of Laguna Negra. Left to right: Trey Smith, Chris Haberle, Liam Pedersen, Cristian Tambley, Gavin Saville, Geoff Saville. Credit: XenoQuest Media

And speaking of launch…After 4 days, a dozen mules trains, 1.5 tons of equipment carried by 4x4s, back, hands, boats, and mules, Planetary Lake Lander is ready to be launched in less than 5 minutes now. In the chaos of the first days, the team never lost its focus and has been outstanding. Liam just called me by radio to confirm that launch is T-5 minutes. The pontoon will be standing tonight on the lake in front of the camp. I will now stop to go see it come from our improvised Launch Point to the southwest of the lake. A very important phase is being successfully completed today.