U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
 
Print Page

News.bytesNews.bytes Extra, issue 369


From BLM's California Desert District to a place like Mars

What do scientists in the California Desert do with their time off? Jeremy Mack, at least, joined a NASA team to conduct science among some of the highest mountains in the western hemisphere. Mack, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who works in BLM’s California Desert District office in Moreno Valley, was part of a team of 17 scientists investigating the impact of increased environmental stress on high-altitude lake habitats in Chile during October and November 2008. (text continues below)

Kevin Rose (University of Miami Ohio) and Jeremy Mack (U.S. Geological Survey) stand on the summit ridge of Aguas Calientes (5,930 meters) in northeast Chile.  The crater lake, Simba, pictured in the background is one of the highest lakes in the world at 5,870 meters.
Kevin Rose (University of Miami Ohio) and Jeremy Mack (U.S. Geological Survey) stand on the summit ridge of Aguas Calientes (5,930 meters) in northeast Chile.  The crater lake, Simba, pictured in the background is one of the highest lakes in the world at 5,870 meters.

“The NASA Astrobiology Institute supported the multi-disciplinary investigation,” explains Mack, “because NASA suspects rapid climate change in these lakes may be analogous to climate change on Mars 3.5 billion years ago. NASA will use the results of the study to tell its Mars Science Laboratory – scheduled for launch in 2011 -- what to look for.   In short, our expedition may help NASA determine whether there was life on Mars.”

Mack and the High Lakes Project team studied three lakes in the Central Andes region of Chile, as well as observed nearby lakes in Bolivia. (For political reasons,the Bolivian government had refused the team permission to conduct scientific study.)   All of the lakes were above 14,500 feet and one, Aquas Calientes, was at nearly 20,000 feet.

“We took our time climbing Aquas Calientes,” Mack recounts. “It was one step at a time, sleeping at ever-increasing altitudes, and taking medication in hopes of staving off altitude sickness. Still, three of the 17 had to return to lower altitudes. And finally, at the crest of the volcano, there it was -- a surreal sight: Simbad, the fourth or fifth highest lake in the world, a bright red body of water looking more like a pond than a lake. It was circular, about 100 yards in diameter, and only partially covered with ice in the southern hemisphere’s late spring.” (more below)

During the expedition in late 2008, Simba and its puzzling red color was partially frozen, but the research team was able to utilize thawed areas (pictured here) for sample collection.
During the expedition in late 2008, Simba and its puzzling red color was partially frozen, but the research team was able to utilize thawed areas (pictured here) for sample collection.

Aguas Calientes in the background stands silent until its next eruption.
Aguas Calientes in the background stands silent until its next eruption.

Mack’s research required sampling water and investigating how the intense high-altitude sunlight penetrates a column of water. Ultra violet (UV) light at nearly 20,000 feet is 165 percent of that measured at sea level. Mack’s study hoped to determine how high rates of UV affect water-based organisms. He expects NASA to release findings of the expedition later this year.

“For a 27-year-old scientist, participating in the expedition was a dream come true,” says Mack. “I had the opportunity of learning about Bolivian and Chilean cultures. I got to learn how a large expedition works from the standpoint of strategy, planning, and logistics. I got to work with scientists who are at the top of their field in a plethora of different disciplines – including astrobiology, climatology, and volcanology. And I got to be part of a team whose work may help NASA prove whether or not there was ever life on Mars. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Back in the Mojave Desert and his Moreno Valley office, Mack continues his fourth year working with the desert tortoise, as well conducting some research on climate change – such as matching levels of desert vegetation in historic and recent photos. “Working on an expedition in the Andes was a fantastic experience,” says Mack, “but it also made me appreciate what we have here. It’s a little difficult sleeping on icy beds of rock at nearly 20,000 feet. There’s a reason the desert tortoise doesn’t live up there.”

Additional expedition information, as well as hundreds of photos, are available at http://cabrol.seti.org/HLP2008/HLP2008.html. The Discovery Channel expects to air a documentary of the expedition later this year.

The expedition team camped within the standing walls of an abandoned army barracks for protection from the wind.
The expedition team camped within the standing walls of an abandoned army barracks for protection from the wind.

The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) is located 13 kilometers west of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert of Chile.  Covering 966 km, the Atacama Desert, a product of a rain shadow created by the Andes and Chilean Coast Range, has been considered the driest desert in the world (50 times drier than California’s Death Valley).
The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) is located 13 kilometers west of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert of Chile.  Covering 966 km, the Atacama Desert, a product of a rain shadow created by the Andes and Chilean Coast Range, has been considered the driest desert in the world (50 times drier than California’s Death Valley).

Jeremy Mack
Jeremy Mack

-Dave Briery, BLM-California, 2/09

BLM-California News.bytes, issue 369


 
Last updated: 02-18-2009