Licancabur Expedition Journal: Part Two

"Right now I’m at the Refuge and I’m looking at Laguna Blanca through the window while I’m talking to you."
– Nathalie Cabrol
Image Credit:

This is the second in a series of four articles about a scientific expedition currently under way to explore the highest lake in the world. The lake lies inside the crater of Licancabur, a dormant volcano that straddles the border between Chile and Bolivia. The expedition hopes to learn how the organisms that live in the lake have adapted to the thin atmosphere and damaging high-UV environment some 6000 meters (19,700 feet) above sea level.

Astrobiology News editor Henry Bortman conducted an interview on Thursday, October 24th, with expedition leader Nathalie Cabrol. Cabrol is a research scientist affiliated with NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, CA. She spoke to us from a stopover point known as "the Refuge," located 4200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level, near the base of Licancabur. A group of three lakes – Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde and a third, unnamed lake fed by a thermal spring – are within easy walking distance of the Refuge.

Astrobiology Magazine: Can you tell us where you are right now?

Nathalie Cabrol: Right now I’m at the Refuge and I’m looking at Laguna Blanca through the window while I’m talking to you.

AM: It’s supposed to be Spring in the Andes. How is the weather?

NC: The weather is stormy. We have storms in the afternoon. It’s not too bad, though. It’s mainly clouds and it’s snowing a little bit on the mountains but it usually disappears the day after.

During the day we are at around 15 to 17 degrees C (59 to 63 F). At night it’s around 2 C (36 F). We expect that during the day on top of Licancabur right now it is between 3 and 5 C (between 37 and 41 F), and at night the temperature should reach minus 15 C (5 F).

AM: What have you been doing while staying at the Refuge besides getting acclimated to the high altitude?

NC: We arrived at the Refuge on Monday morning [October 21st]. Monday afternoon we started a tour of the lagunas [lakes] for the members of the team who didn’t know the surroundings.

Andy [Hoke] and Brian [Grigsby] and Dave [Fike] left to study the thermal pool, which is fed by a thermal spring that is at about 15 degrees C [59 F]. Andy’s going to be working the temperature profile and trying to understand the water chemistry of the source. There are many interesting microorganisms and algae in this thermal pool.

Nathalie Cabrol of NASA Ames Research Center (shown above) is leading the Licancabur Expedition.
Image Credit: Seth Shostak

After that, along with Edmond [Grin], we decided to take a walk. My goal here is to understand the history of the paleolake. And it’s a tremendous history as far as we can see. But on that morning we went out around 9:00 just for a walk – nothing more. And we were walking and walking and walking, and we started walking on the terraces of the paleolake [ancient lakebed shorelines] and I stumbled into a prehistoric tool. So we are also doing archaeology.

I would say it’s about a one-inch-long obsidian tool. It looks to me like a small razor, to cut skin or meat or flesh. To some others it looks like an arrowhead. But it’s very interesting because before coming here we all visited the [archeological] museum in San Pedro and learned that these tools can be as old as 5,000 or 10,000 years old. So it was a tremendous finding.

It touched us very much because it is kind of a link in time between the past and the present, between the people who lived here and who probably had the same view as we have today. So I have this tool with me right now and I will hand it over to the museum and the people there will label it properly. It’s really remarkable.

Then we continued our walk. We were heading away from the current lakeshore, which means that we were going back in time. And as we were reaching one of the highest shorelines, I think we made the discovery of a lifetime. We found a field of stromatolites that is larger than anything I have ever seen before. [Stromatolites are the fossil remains of layered, often dome-shaped microbial communities. They are believed to have been one of the dominant forms of life on early Earth.]

The field is about 250 meters across and it probably extends several miles. Our guide said that it could extend up to 10 kilometers. And it goes around the lake. This is something I’ve never seen before. The domes are preserved. The laminations [layers] are preserved. And that was just our first morning.

The next day we had a training day. That was Wednesday (October 23). Our goal that day was to reach 5000 meters (16,400 feet) because many of the team members, including me, have never reached that height before. [The summit of Licancabur is at 6000 meters (19,700 feet).] So we wanted to do that, to continue our acclimatization.

We not only reached 5000 meters very well, but we went up to 5200 to reach the summit of lower rim of Juriques [another nearby volcano]. So it was a real achievement. It’s too bad that the storm chased us down. It became really, really cold and we had to turn back. But it was really a beautiful experience.

We walked through the Inca City [ancient Incan ruins] to follow the trail. And once we were way up we looked with an eagle’s eye and it looked almost like a blueprint of an archaeologist, that city that archaeologists draw when they are in the field, when they are making plans. So it was very, very impressive.

AM: There is second team of scientists based in Antofagasta, on the Chilean coast. I understand they will be visiting you at the refuge during your stay there.

NC: We received a visit this morning from Team B – Imre Friedmann, Rosalie Friedmann, Kiss Keeve and Istran Grigorsky. We took them to the different sites we have been exploring so far, the stromatolite field, the lagunas. The two Hungarians collected many, many samples. Just from what they saw, they already think that there are some interesting things. But we had two cases of altitude sickness so we had to ship them back [to Antofagasta] pretty fast this afternoon.

We are waiting now for news from them. Tomorrow they will start studying the samples they took today. They will study them in the lab [that is set up at the Universidad Catolica del Norte] in Antofagasta and tell us more about the microbial life in the lagunas.

Tomorrow we have a second day of training in the mountains and this one will happen on Licancabur, so that will be our first reconnaissance on the slope. We’ll be going as far as we can. We’re not planning to reach the summit tomorrow, but we’ll go as far as we can.

AM: When do you plan to begin your climb to the summit?

NC: We will start the ascent on the 27th. We will sleep the first night in Inca City. The day after, we will climb to 5400 meters (17,700 feet) and we will spend the night there. Meanwhile the porters will bring all our equipment to the summit. The day after that, on the 29th, we should reach the summit and sleep two nights there. We should be down November 1st, if we have no weather delays.

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)