About the High Lakes 2006 Expedition

Expedition Overview

The High-Lakes Project (HLP) is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) through the SETI/NAI team lead and explores extreme lakes at the summit of high volcanoes. Some of these lakes are located in the Chilean and Bolivian Andes. They are poorly known, located in extreme environments, and host unique ecosystems. Their exploration brings new knowledge about the biosphere of our planet, the origin and evolution of life, and its adaptation to rapid climate change. HLP already has led to significant scientific findings that tell us about the potential for life on other planets and helps the preparation of future planetary missions.

Our team of planetary and Earth scientists and engineers has specialized in the scientific exploration of these high-altitude lakes. In the past 4 years, we have investigated the summit lakes of the Licancabur (6,004 m), and Poquentica (5,850 m) volcanoes, as well as lower lakes such as Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca (4,400 m), and Laguna Colorada (4,500 m). We go where few people go to perform extreme science and to acquire knowledge.

Objectives:

Our goal is to understand the physical, chemical, geological, and climatic constraints on habitability in the high altitude lakes, and develop models (both qualitative and quantitative) for the analogy to ancient Martian lakes and their potential for life. To reach that goal, we explore and dive in some of the highest lakes in the world as they offer the best terrestrial analogy to ancient martian lacustrine environments.

Exploring Life at the Extreme

In the past four years (2002-2005), first with a NASA ARC DDF grant and now with a NAI grant, our project team has explored Licancabur, one of the highest lakes in the world (6,004 m), Laguna Blanca, Laguna Verde, Thermales (4,340 m) in Bolivia and performed a series of reconnaissances in Laguna Colorada to the North. Key astrobiological information about their physical and biological environment was retrieved. In 2006, our team will explore three giants of the Andes and their summit lakes: Licancabur (6004 m) , Poquentica (5850 m), and Aguas Calientes (5950 m), in Bolivia and Chile.

This year will also see a change in practice from our team. While in previous years we free dived (no oxygen tanks) in Licancabur -except for last year as the lake was frozen solid), this year the team will scuba dive, using for the first time 02 CODE rebreathers at this altitude. We received special training from AquaLung and MDEA back in August. The rebreathers will give us all the time we need to explore the amazing ecosystem of Licancabur in great details and methodically. In the past years, we could grasp the diversity and uniqueness of this ecosystem during our free diving sessions. This year, we come equipped for bottom time, methodical sampling, and with technical capabilities that will allow full documentation.

Who We Are

  • We are a team of planetary and Earth scientists, engineers, assistants, technicians, guides, porters, and cooks;
  • We are explorers, because there are still new frontiers to be discovered on our planet;
  • We value knowledge and education;
  • We go to extreme environments to understand the evolution of planet Earth and beyond, and pass on knowledge to the next generation;
  • We are high-mountaineers performing science of the extreme at over 6,000 m altitude;
  • We are extreme divers. Our team holds an unofficial world record of highest free dive, diving at the summit lake of Licancabur without air tanks (2003, 2004). In 2006, we will use O2 CODE rebreathers.

Why We Explore

We explore to understand:

Life: Its adaptation (or lack thereof) to rapid environmental changes as a clue to our past and key to our future. We try to document: Where are we coming from? How did life survive on Earth?

Life Habitats: The impact of rapid climate change on environment and life. What will be the response of Earth's biosphere to global warming? How rapid climate changes in the past could have affected life on Earth and on other planets (if any)?

Beyond Planet Earth: The potential for past and/or current life on other planets of the solar system, especially Mars. Are we alone? Did life evolve on other planets?

Exploration: For the last four years our website has provided a live link between the expedition and the public, sharing the excitement of the exploration of new frontiers on our own planet as it happens, and sharing discoveries and what they can tell us about life elsewhere in our Solar System and in the Universe. We will continue the tradition this year by keeping daily logs and video on our website as the expedition unfolds at: http://highlakes.seti.org

Climate Change: Separate the facts from the fiction. What is our responsibility? What is the part of an ever changing planet? Our work is documenting the effects and impact of climate change. It provides data that will help formulate relevant questions about the issue of global warming.

Where We Explore

In 2006, the team will ascend three giants of the Altiplano and dive into one of them, the two others being too shallow for diving. We will continue our exploration of the unique ecosystem of the Licancabur summit lake and that of Poquentica (boundary between Chile and Bolivia), Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca, and Laguna Colorada (Bolivia). For the first time, we will ascend and explore Aguas Calientes in Chile (5,950 m) and characterize its environmental conditions and ecosystem.

Figure: Upper left: Licancabur lake; Upper right: Aguas Calientes lake; Lower left: Poquentica lake; Lower right, Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca seen from the slopes of Licancabur.

How We Explore

The expedition brings together state-of-the art science, high-mountaineering, and diving. Few people go to the places we study. Exploring high-altitude summit lakes requires us to climb mountains in a thin atmosphere and cold temperatures, camp at altitude, and dive in places where dive tables do not exist anymore. It requires a strong team spirit and relying on each other in an extreme and remote environment.

The Expedition Schedule and Profile

The team will leave the US on October 26th and will return home December 6th. Three summit lakes are scheduled this year in addition to the investigation of lower lakes such as Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca, and Laguna Colorada, where the emphasis will be put on bathymetry and microbiology. After the ascent of Aguas Calientes, about half the team will go back to the US on November 22nd. The remaining group will head to Julo for the final ascent at Poquentica (see the expedition profile).

Expedition Support

If you join us by supporting our scientific expedition, not only will you help advance knowledge and allow the exploration of new frontiers on Earth, but your company's name will be featured on our website and associated with the High Lakes Project.