Captain’s Log No. 2 – Microbes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…

November 7-10, 2008

Well, let’s start with the ugly…The beginning of the expedition was marked by an unusual number of team members being sick, including yours truly…and I mean it, sick with antibiotics needed! This has never happened to me in the 7 years of having this expedition. I guess there is a first time for everything.

It is a good thing that we have a doctor on the team and she has been very busy the first week. Jut was the first to be hit and then the bug started to spread; even though Jut was in San Pedro recovering. Then my turn…Sore throat, congestion…unhappy me but with a good doctor, the sun of the altiplano, and so many lakes to deal with, everything is now back to normal. Other than that, I am not sure that anyone of us has escaped some level of this bug, whatever it is. That’s for the bad microbes. But now, everybody is well and this episode has not decreased the productivity of the team, far from that…Now for the good microbes…They are everywhere and this is why we are here.

Nathalie showing a sample of subsurface microbial life on the shore of Laguna Lejia

We have settled in Chillyfornia, on the Chilean side of the altiplano. We had a warm welcome from the volcano Lascar. Quiet until our arrival, it has started to show some venting activity. I am starting to wonder if it did not recognize us after its last year’s tantrum (see HLP 2007 ). Nothing alarming, just volutes of water vapor. Still…

Chillyfornia is our home away from home. The camp is remarkably organized thanks to the logistical talent of Cristian and Victor and also to the energy of the entire team who took only two hours to set it up. Our “office” at 4,200 m is equipped with a satellite phone and internet connection – which I am proud to say is faster than any connection in San Pedro- (Edmond’s explanation is that we are closer to the satellites in space). The office doubles as a medical room, which was fairly busy last week due to the rampaging bug and the daily medical exams of the team by the good doctor Claudia, who is fantastic. You never feel sick no matter how bad you are. She always laughs. Of course, she is an ER doctor so I suppose that a few colds are not that scary to her. She is running after us for her physiological exams daily, which proves that we still have enough energy to try to escape her.

The office is a good place to convene at night after dinner. The team goes through the daily data, views photos shot during the day, or to simply chat.

The other central place is the dinning room. This is the largest tent in the camp. This year we have two cooks, David (who was with us last year) and his charming wife, always smiling Benita, who serves as his assistant. David is a great cook and the team is grateful for that. Nothing like warm soup at 5:00 pm to welcome the team back to camp when we are returning from the field. We are exposed all day long to the assaults of the altiplanic wind, the cold temperatures, and the salt of the lakes and this is a nice pause before going through the samples and all the data collected. We share this space with the porters, guides, and drivers, which makes for a good crowd. We are about 20 people total this year. A little community in the middle of the altiplano, only surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the volcanoes, the sun setting on lava flows, the moon light at night on those peaks and the millions of stars larger than plates in the sky, diamond beaconing in the crisp night.

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Chillyfornia camp panorama

In the past few days, the Nandus (large birds that look like ostriches) have become more curious about us. Yesterday, as we were coming back, three large birds were getting closer to the camp. They saw the pick-up trucks and ran like kids caught red-handed in the cookie jar. I would not be surprised to find one peaking in on a tent in the morning. It seems to be a good year for them (see also Captain’s Log No.3). They are abundant and females run in the altiplano with an average of 6 chicks in tow… priceless.

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Ñandu running

Vicunas and llamas are also present as are goats and wild donkeys: So much life in such an arid and desolated area. This is where it all comes back to mind. How do they survive? How come they still can be here? Water is an essential clue. The lakes we are studying are central to their survival and they are disappearing. When we started the High Lakes Project, our first objective was to understand how climate change on Mars and increased UV could have impacted the habitability of ancient martian lakes 3.5 billion years ago. Today, six years later, while we have made significant progress in our understanding of this question thanks to a unique terrestrial analog in the altiplano, we have stumbled into something else, something of urgent actuality that touches us and our planet now. Climate is changing here and now. How does this climate change, the fading water column of these lakes, and the increased effect of UV impact habitability in the altiplanic lakes and the ecosystems that survived in and around those lakes?

From Earth to Mars and back to Earth. The circle is far from being completed. This journey is just starting. The echo of a declining habitability on Mars 3.5 billion years ago is haunting us in the altiplano and all around the globe for that matter. However, Chile and Bolivia are amongst the countries most affected by current changes: In 50 years, Chile has lost 50% of its precipitation; Glaciers in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina have retreated 7 times faster in the past 15 years than ever before. The high lakes are telling us a tale of changing planets, either here and now or back on Mars then. They are a time machine propelling us into the past of Mars and into Earth’s future. Although fading away, these natural laboratories are delivering us a message of hope, one of life’s survival no matter what, a message delivered by the data and the samples we collect everyday.

Good night from up high,