20 June 2009

Field Operations Complete: 2009 Atacama Desert Expedition a Success!

Image: Our victory dance. Dinner at the Adobe Restaurant in San Pedro. This is becoming a ritual for us. We hope the team will make it down here again next year.

Today was our mop up day, and the whole team went into the field together. We had some additional questions we wanted to address with these a handful of instruments that we had remaining, so we went to two caves to deploy these instruments.

Last night, Tim took our newly drafted maps of Shredder and Luna y Media and the coordinate data from the entrances to create routes for us to walk on the surface. For Shredder Cave, we want to derive elevation data at points along this route. Using the cave map, we will then derive roof thickness data via interpolation along this route. We also deployed instruments at the skylight as well as directly above the dark zone. Additional surface instrumentation will help us better interpret surface and entrance temperature data.

Image: Like a proud Mom, our safety chief Christina sits next to her creation. She did an excellent job rigging the area above the nuisance climb.

First we returned to Shredder Cave. Our approach to this cave takes a bit of time due to a 20 foot nuisance climb which requires rigging.

Once we arrived at the cave, we needed to confirm the location of the skylight by sending Lynn, Dan and Denise into the cave to stand beneath the skylight. Tim and I stood over what we believed to be the location of the skylight where we waited for them to arrive. Within 30 minutes, they arrived and we realized we were at the correct spot. This was our first success of the day. We then went to the approximate location of where the dark zone sensor was located and deployed another surface sensor. Thereafter, we then followed the GPS route along the length of the cave collecting altimetry data along the way. Both Tim and I collected this data with our GPS units; we used two units so that we could compare our results.

Image: On belay at the nuisance climb above the Shredder Cave canyon entrance. Credit: Christina Colpitts.

Once we wrapped up Shredder, we deadheaded for Cañon Carí – the location of Caverna Luna y Media. Our objectives were to climb up on the rim of the canyon, locate the two skylights from the surface to deploy microclimate instruments, and then deploy another microclimate sensor above the approximate dark zone sensor within the cave. But first, Lynn, Tim and I had to find a route to the canyon rim. Once done, our plan was essentially the same as for Shredder – half the team would reach the skylights from within the cave, while the surface team would find the skylights from the surface. The cave team (Christina, Denise and Dan) went to the first skylight, and then we met them at what we believe to be the skylight. We were in radio contact with the cave team, and once they reached the skylight, they contacted us via the radio. We then yelled back and forth until we could figure out exactly where they were. Once done, they continued on to the second skylight and we repeated the process. This went quite smoothly, and we confirmed the locations of both skylights. Another success!

Image: Tim looking on from Cañon Carí. Credit: Dan Ruby.

Both of these skylights were situated within steeply sloping terrain leading to the skylights; there was about a 100 foot drop from the lip of the skylight to the bottom of the cave. The route leading to the area containing the skylights was rather precarious and potentially hazardous, so I opted to go down to the area containing the skylights to deploy the sensor while Lynn and Tim remained upslope.

From there, we walked to the surface location estimated to be the surface location above where the dark zone cave sensor was located. After some disagreement regarding whether we were at the correct location, we decided to deploy the sensor where Tim’s estimates suggested.

Image: Dan and Denise in Cañon Carí. Credit: Christina Colpitts.

By this time, the cave team was en route to the surface and we planned to meet them within the canyon at the entrance of the cave. Once we deployed the last surface sensor, Lynn, Tim and I hiked down off the canyon rim, met up with the team, and hiked back to the trucks.

All Atacama Desert field operations are now complete! We have another successful expedition under our belts in the driest desert on the planet. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with this team again this year. I have been blessed to have such an incredibly group of dedicated individuals to work with. They have truly made my job easy. We have accomplished a lot in the past three weeks, and I have learned a lot from this experience.

Image: View looking south from atop Cañon Carí.

We will spend the next few days tying up a few loose administrative ends and packing up the house. On 23 June, we will depart for Calama. On 24 June, Dan, Tim and Denise head back to the states, while Christina, Lynn and I continue on to Rapa Nui for another three week expedition. As always, I will make every attempt to keep my blog current during this expedition as well.

Image: I have no idea what is going on here. End of the day and the mission is complete. Credit: Christina Colpitts.

19 June 2009

End of primary field operations and Inti Illimani

Drafted: 18 June 2009

Image: Inti Illimani performing at the San Pedro de Atacama Indigenous Cultural Center.

The entire team at Los Gatos; today, was slated to be a rather short day. The mapping team will map and collect volume data on this cave, while the sensor team will manage the instruments. We also returned to Salon to exchange the malfunctioning sensors with operable ones.

Image: Upon our return to Salon we went to the sinkhole entrance where we found this. A recently deposited owl pellet. Owls cannot digest the hair and bones of their prey, and they regurgitate this in the form of a pellet. Notice the wet stain on the cave floor. This pellet was fresh. We know telocotes (or barn owls) are known to frequent these caves.

There’s not a lot to report on this day. It was rather uneventful in terms of mishaps. Our work continues to progress smoothly.

Image: Lynn and Tim in Salon Cave. We're just about to start mop-up operations in this cave.

We did have quite an eventful evening last night. We learned from the lady who owns the almacen (Chilean for “grocery store”) that a traditional altiplano band, Inti Illimani, was playing at the cultural center near our house. This was an incredible treat for the entire team. While San Pedro is indeed a tourist town, this was no tourist event. We’ve been in this town for the past three weeks and we’ve come to recognize the locals from the tourists. We also saw our CONAF friends, Jose Luis and Roberto at the show. The best we could tell we were likely the only non-South Americans attending the show.

Image: Self-portrait in Salon Cave. We have dust masks for this work, but bandanas are just much easier.

It turns out, Inti Llimani is an internationally acclaimed band. They travel the world playing the music of the high Altiplano. It was an eight person band and all of them were multi-instrumentalists. I was quite impressed with them.

As for our instrument woes, we have been unable to change the settings of the sensor collecting data every minute, yet the other sensor now appears to be working properly.

Image: Skylights at Los Gatos.

However, this is quite small in comparison to our overall accomplishments today. Today, we officially completed our primary mission objectives. All of our field objectives have now been met. Tomorrow, we will take an office day to finish up our data entry and complete some administrative tasks related to the expedition.

On Saturday, we will visit two caves to deploy surface sensors next to a few skylights. Once done, our fieldwork is done.

Image: Even the dogs had a good time at the Inti Illimani show. These two played nonstop for almost two hours.

Winding down in the Atacama

17 June 2009

Image: The upper skylight entrance of Salon Cave.

Today, the entire team went to Salon Cave once again. The mapping team was wrapping up their work, and the sensor team was there to pull data off sensors and maintain the instruments.

Image: Preparing to enter oneof the lower canyon entrances to Salon Cave. One of the reasons this is such a leaky sieve is because it has three entrances at the lower canyon entrance, and contains a passage that opens up into a series of skylights and open canyon. Credit: Tim Titus.

In discussing the results of the thermal analysis with Tim, I’m getting pretty good at predicting the thermal behavior of each of our study sites. In July 2008, I actually equivocated on Salon Cave. The mapping team had mapped about one-third of this cave as I was deploying sensors, and then I realized it was essentially a big leaky sieve cave, and that it wouldn’t make a good study site. As we later learned, we had around only six true caves, so we had to use some additional sites (i.e., leaky sieve caves) as another study feature -- presumably, a non-cave anomaly or perhaps a new end member entirely. Long story short, prior to Tim running the analysis, I indicated it would be a leaky sieve cave, and it was.

Image: Upper canyon entrance for Salon.

The mapping team finished Salon today. They now have one very small cave segment to map tomorrow and then they are done.

Once we got back to the house, we learned we had two sensor failures from this cave. The sensor team will return to this cave tomorrow and exchange the malfunctioning sensors for working ones. We will then see if we can correct the issues with these instruments so we can use them at some of our other study sites.

When we were looking, we learned one of the sensors was programmed to collect data every minute; as a result, it collected data for only 100 days. The other collected barometric pressure data correctly, but was logging temperature data as -888º F. While this is somewhat of a disappointment, we have been incredibly fortunate, out of 90 Hobo loggers, we have had issues with only two instruments.

Image: One of the skylights within the swiss cheese passage of Salon.

17 June 2009

Sussing out a New Cave with CONAF

16 June 2009

Image: From left to right, Magda, me, Fernando and Jose Luis posing for a Explorers Club flag photo near the location of a newly discovered cave.

Today, the sensor team had a conops day. In particular, Tim was using the day to run additional analysis on the data collected. The mapping team returned to Salon Cave to begin the mapping efforts, and I headed to CONAF to meet up with Madga, Fernando and Jose Luis.

Image: Madga negociating a 20 foot upclimb. Fernando looking on as she makes the ascent.

Fernando and Jose Luis had found a new cave. So, exploring this cave with Madga, Fernando and Jose Luis was the only fieldwork on my agenda today. We were in the field for only a few hours. This cave was about 30m in length and was a classic piping cave. It was characterized with a sinkhole upslope from a lower elevation lateral entrance. This was a neat little cave. For such a little cave, it was highly decorated with salt formations.

Image: Some dunal formations (o dunas) of the Atacama Desert.

I took coordinates of this cave and it is quite likely that we will also collect thermal imagery of this feature as well when we conduct the overflights next year.

Image: The west end of the park with an excellent view of Licancabur in the background. At over 19,000 ft, Licancabur is the highest volcano in the Andean front range.

Since we arrived in San Pedro, the team has expressed an interest in having llama for dinner. So, the mapping team went by the butcher (el carnicero) today to pick up some llama. We had llama steaks marinated in wine, olive oil, garlic and onions. However, llama is a tough meat and is usually eaten fried or in stews. Despite this, dinner was excellent.

Image: The llama meal...

15 June 2009

A Bump in the Road

14-15 June 2009

Image: Lynn and I working in one of the entrances of Traga Luz Grande. I'm the monkey on the right. Credit: Tim Titus.

Yesterday, the mapping team finished up Shreader Cave. The mapping team is doing incredibly well, and tomorrow they will be a day ahead of schedule.

The past two days the sensor team has been working at Traga Luz Grande. This cave is the largest in the Cordillera, and it took us quite a while to retrieve all the data. With the small exception of having difficulties in relocating one of our surface sensors, all work has been proceeding without incident -- without incident until today. One of our shuttles, which is used for uploading sensor data in the field crashed today. These shuttles essentially "shuttle" the data from the field instruments to the computer. We upload the data from the data loggers in the field and then we transfer the data from the shuttles to our computers thereafter. The shuttle that crashed contained all the data from Traga Luz Grande; it had a corrupt header file. As a result, we were unable to transfer the data to our computers.

Image: Pulling data from one of our surface sensors. Credit: Tim Titus.

This is compounded by the fact that we really need Tim to analyze these data while in the field so we can determine if our sensor placement and coverage is adequate. Without this essential step, we are at a slight disadvantage. However, we will simply have to adjust fire and move forward with our study of this cave. Rather than having the data from this cave, we will use the map and all the other field data to provide us with the ability to make some "educated guesses" regarding where our sensors are placed and how study of this cave should continue. Because this cave is so vast and also critically important to this study, we plan to err on the side of caution and deploy additional instruments in this cave.

Image: Tim and I encountered this hammer stone in one of the smaller caves within the Traga Luz Grande cave complex. This smaller cave was a salt mine and the hammer stone were used for removing the raw material from the walls and ceilings of this cave. We are uncertain as to whether it was the Quechuan or perhaps even the Inca working this mine or whether this activity was the result of more contemporary use. This area was also contained a copper mine --so the history can be rather challenging to interpret.

We remain hopeful the good folks at Onset Computers (who make our data loggers) will be able to retrieve the data for us. I reckon the silver lining here is that it was the header file, which suggests the data is still on the shuttle. Tim's current theory is that it was a cosmic ray hit, which can result in a flipped bit. This can cause a header file to become corrupted. Given our elevation, the intensity of a cosmic ray hit can be more severe. He'll be taking the shuttle back to the states, and will send it directly to Onset.

Image: While I can't promise this will be my only "brave explorer" shot, Tim did take a good photo and I decided to post it. Image: The man some call "Tim."

This sort of thing happens in the field. So, we just have to roll with the punches. I tend to view this as it was only a shuttle and the data. We continue to remain quite fortunate in the Atacama. Today, we completed our 15th day in Chile and the entire team has high morale and we have not had any safety issues yet. With six days of field operations remaining, I am hopeful this little hiccup will be the extent of our problems on this expedition.

Image: The second in command at Rancho Tonka. Obviously, Tonka the patron of our expedition, runs this ranch, but this ram thinks "he's the man." Whenever you walk by the sheep you get the "eyeball" from this guy. Credit: Tim Titus.

14 June 2009

Return to Shreader Cave and mi amigos con CONAF

13 June 2009

Image: The Cordillera in the foreground and the Altiplano in the background. The mountain peaks of the Altiplano range from 15000 to 19000 feet in elevation.

Today, we worked at Shreader Cave and Cascada Pequeña. Shreader is a two entrance cave with a skylight at center; Cascada Pequeña is a small piping feature which is one of our non-cave anomalies.

Both teams worked in the same area today. This has many benefits, but perhaps most importantly, we have all medical personnel at the same site in case there is an accident. We have structured our schedule so both teams working at the same cave as much as possible.

Image: Jose Luis and my leg. This image provides an idea of the tight passage of Shreader Cave. Most of this cave is characterized as a belly crawl.

We also had the fortune of working with CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal). CONAF is the Chilean national park service equivalent. Also, I got to work with a good friend of mine, Jose Luis Jara. He and I worked together in 2006, as part of NASA Spaceward Bound!, Atacama Expedition. It has been three years since we saw each other, so it was great to hang out with him again. We worked with two other CONAF officials -- Fernando and Magda.

Today, we have a really large team, and there is one one section of our approach that requires a nuisance belay. I free-climbed up a 25 foot rock face and then belayed the rest of the team up this traverse. Christina stayed below and made sure the diaper sling that we were using for each team member was properly secured. This did take us a while. It took us around 1.5 hrs to get everyone past this one tricky spot on our approach.

Image: Jose Luis, Magda and Lynn after we completed our work at Shreader Cave. Lynn was braiding the webbing so I could pack it out.

Once we finally arrived at our two study sites, Fernando and Magda went with the mapping team, and Jose Luis went with the sensor team. The mapping team first mapped Cascada Pequeña; we planned it this way because Shreader cave is "muy angusto" or very tight, so it was quite difficult to move nine people through the cave. Actually, it is quite difficult and rather slow with just two people. The cave is characterized by tiht low passage, and snakes back and forth considerably. Once going through this cave, one knows what it must be like to move like a snake.

Image: Dan and Denise hiking back to the truck after a long day in the field. Credit: Christina Colpitts.

While the mapping team tackled Cascada Pequeña, the sensor team went and pulled data and relaunched instruments from Shreader. Once finished, we returned to the surface, pulled data from the instruments in Cascada Pequeña, and the mapping team moved into Shreader.

We're really operating like clockwork on this expedition. To date, at least, the work proceeds smoothly. However, expedition work, and fieldwork in general is riddled with hurdles and curve balls, so we have to be ready to adjust fire as need be.

Image: Jose Luis, Madga and I. Credit: Lynn Hicks.

12 June 2009

Cueva Tecolote Una Vez!

11 June 2009

Image: Tim and I pulling data off one of our instruments located on the surface. Credit: Lynn Hicks.

We will have to do a bit more hiking during this expedition, which is great; however, the longer hikes cut into our time in the field. The park recently closed most of the roads leading to the foothills containing our study caves. So, we have to park in one of two locations and then hike to the caves.

Image: Gearing up at the trailhead. We're just about to hike into the caves.

The sensor team moved to another cave today. We pulled data off the sensors in Barn Owl cave. We finished this by midday, which gave us a little time to explore this cave.

The mapping team required two days to collect volume data and map of Luna y Media. One of our team members became mildly ill while mapping this cave. We suspect it could be related to the dust. We are taking every effort to wear dust masks while working underground; however, there are times when the masks become cumbersome and folks simply go without them. We will continue to remain vigilant on this issue, and take steps to insure the team is reducing their daily dust intake.

Image: Tim and Lynn working to pull data off the instruments.

Image: Evidence of salt mining. Notice the angularity on the exposed salt. This is evidence of the salt being flaked off this exposure. The cave floor was also littered with salt flakes. There were also fire hearths, wood and charcoal littering the ground. It seems they were using the fire to provide light to extract salt from this cave.

This cave was extensively used by prehistoric peoples, presumably the Atacameños or perhaps the Incas. We found numerous locations where fires were built, and we were also able to tentatively correlate this to a salt mining operation. The Incas were masters at exploiting commodities and developing trade routes throughout this area. With the major Incan administrative center of Cartarpe just a few miles away, I suspect the Incas were coordinating the removal of salt in pristine extraction locations. We also found ceramics in the back of this cave, and stomach remains of a ruminant, presumably one of the four llama species. It is quite likely there were multiple uses of this cave over the past several thousand years. The exact uses of this cave will probably continue to elude us, and the timeline for this usage will likely remain a mystery.

Image: A mandible, presumably from a Llama species, found in a rocky mud conglomerate mid-cave.

These shots were taken as we were driving through San Pedro en route to the field. Unfortunately, I think the woman who was herding these animals was not pleased with me taking photos.

Tomorrow we will have the day off. Everyone but Tim and I are going to Bolivia for the day. They will be visiting two lagunas on the Chile-Bolivia border that I visited back in November.

Tim will continue with the analysis on our day off. I will go to CONAF to give a presentation on our work in the Atacama.

Image: A small heard of llamas and cows being herded through town by a Quechuan woman and her dogs. She wasn't overly keen on me taking photos of her animals. I didn't realize this until I said "buenas dias." After saying it twice, she looked tersely at me and said "buenas." The use of "buenas" instead of "buenas dias" or "buenas noches" is common here in Chile.

Image: Another image of the herd of livestock and the Quechuan woman.