Arrival at Laguna Negra

Members of the Planetary Lake Lander team with representatives of Aguas Andinas. From left to right: Edmond Grin, Trey Smith, Christian Tambley, Nathalie Cabrol, Ruben Sommaruga, Juan Carlos Sanhueza and Luis Hernández, Erich Fleming, Liam Pedersen and Angela Detweiler. Credit Henry Bortman

After assembling Sunday night at a hotel in Santiago, Chile, the first group of PLLers began their journey to Laguna Negra Monday morning. The most arduous part of the trip was getting out of the hotel parking lot into rush-hour traffic.

An hour later, still within the confines of Santiago, we pulled into the offices of Aguas Andina, the private company responsible for Santiago’s water supply. Santiago’s water historically comes from Laguna Negra, fed by the Echaurren glacier at the north end of the lake. Because the surrounding land is under Aguas Andinas control, we needed their permission to camp and do research there. At our meeting, we explained the goals of the Planetary Lake Lander project. They shared historical data about the glacier and the lake with us, and we promised to share whatever data we collected with them.

The Echaurren glacier is melting, rapidly. Within 50 years, it is expected to be gone completely. In the recent past, the level of Laguna Negra has dropped several meters from its historical average over the past century and a half, threatening the water supply for a city of six million people.

Keys in hand to the various locked gates along the gravel road that leads to the lake, we continued on our journey. The plan was to get to the lake and set up camp in one day. But in field research, plans have a way of changing. After a several-hour-long delay in San Gabriel, a small rural Chilean town (fortunately not too small to have both empanadas and beer for sale), we met up with additional members of our team, and began a steep climb up into the Andes. We spent the night at an Aguas Andinas refuge about an hour’s drive from the lake.

The next morning we got our first view of the lake, from a small parking area where the road to Laguna Negra ends. Then began the unpleasant task of carrying camping gear, personal gear, and dozens hard plastic cases full of scientific equipment down a rocky, winding, quarter-mile dirt path from the parking lot to our campsite. Everything didn’t make it to the campsite that first day – more on that later – but at least we all spent the night in the tents that would be our home for the next three weeks.

Quote of the day: “I wish I had a tail.”

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