High Lakes 2005

A view of Laguna Verde (front) and Laguna Blanca from the slope of Licancabur.
Image Credit: Peter Coppin

For the fourth year in a row, a team of scientists has traveled up into the Andes mountains in Bolivia to study the life forms – mostly microbes – that inhabit some of the highest lakes in the world. These high lakes offer researchers an opportunity to study life in an extreme environment on Earth that is in some ways like conditions on Mars. At the high lakes, it is arid, the air is thin, and UV radiation is intense. Studying how life adapts to these conditions helps scientists develop ideas about how to search for life on Mars.

In previous years, the team has ascended the 20,000-foot (6,000-meter) volcano Licancabur, collected water and sediment samples from the summit lake, and placed scientific experiments for later retrieval. Several members of the team have gone diving in the summit lake to collect samples from the lake bed. This year, in addition to climbing Licancabur, the team will also explore a second volcano, Poquentica.

Prior to ascending Licancabur, the team set up their base of at a remote refuge in the Andes, where they conducted scientific experiments at two additional nearby lakes, Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde.

Astrobiology Magazine will be posting a series of log entries from the expedition leader, Nathalie Cabrol. Cabrol works with the SETI Institute and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) at NASA Ames Research Center. NAI provided funding for the High Lakes 2005 expedition.

A complete expedition log, including many more pictures, can be found online.

High Lakes 2005: Captain’s Log #1

October 30, 2005
Licancabur Ascent in 3 Days

Laguna Verde and Blanca seen from the Licancabur summit.
Credit: Marko Riikonen

This year, conditions are brutal in the altiplano. In front of the refuge, Laguna Blanca is consistently frozen, with a few exceptions. The summit lake of Licancabur is buried under 70 cm (about 30 inches) of ice. There will be no diving at the summit this year, and we had to reassess our options to get science done safely. This is a challenge: During our training on Juriques two days ago, we were greeted at the second summit (5,200 m, or 17,000 feet) by a sustained wind (not gusts) of over 100 km/h (about 60 mph). I was almost thrown to the ground, and Clay made the best catch of his life that day. Rob was basically leaning 30 degrees against the wind. You can imagine that we did not stay long there. Time for photos … and duck! We were pretty cold back at the car but everybody is in good health.

Today, the weather was better. It is incredible what a difference less wind can make. We hiked on Licancabur until we reached mid-slope for our second training day. From what I saw, there are at least two things I am sure of: The team is happy to be here … and they are not anoxic! They kept singing on the way in and back 🙂 … No need for a radio. The peace of the altiplano was a bit troubled but our guide had the time of his life.

We reached our training goal of twice reaching 5,200 m before thinking about Licancabur. This year will be special. I did not mention yet that the temperature currently at the summit is minus 40 C (minus 40 F), and this is without the wind-chill factor. El Niño is very present. I had to make executive decisions. On one hand, we were never so well prepared for the underwater documentation of the lake and its bathymetry. This is disappointing. We will have to forget it for the time being. On the other hand, a second volcano, Poquentica, is waiting for us 700 km (435 miles) north. We do not know this one yet, and everything is yet to be discovered there. Poquentica and its summit lake are our other objectives for this year. This volcano is located to the north, closer to the equator and has not been hit by the storms related to El Niño. We should be fine there.

Several members of the High Lakes 2005 expedition practice their mountaineering skills on Juriques, a peak near their base camp in the Andes.
Image Credit: Peter Coppin

Moreover, all science at the summit of Licancabur is not over. I changed our original plans compared to previous years. The temperature is so low that we will not camp at the summit but at mid-camp. We will leave it early morning of November 3rd and dash for the summit where we will retrieve our meteorological data and position a new Eldonet station. I will personally try to extract some mud from below the ice near shore and we will be out of there, destination either mid-camp if we are late or tired, or the refuge if we are early enough. Only the fittest will go. This is the first time that I will not bring the entire team to the summit, but this year is nothing like normal.

Despite the harsh conditions, the work at the level of the lower lakes has been going flawlessly, and we already have been making great progress in our sampling program as well as instruments positioning. Our biologists should arrive November 5th and move North with us.

As we are studying extreme environments, this year, we have become part of the experiment, just in case we forgot what extreme really means. So far, we are as successful as the microorganisms living in the lakes. We adapt!

On behalf of the entire team, I send our thoughts to our friends back home. We are doing well and preparing well. We are staying safe and thinking of you.

Laguna Blanca Refuge
October 30th, 2005

Related Web Pages

Licancabur Expedition Home
Michael Endl’s Journey to Licancabur
What’s Living in the World’s Highest Lake? (Licancabur Expedition Journal: Part I)
Licancabur Expedition Journal: Part II