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.

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