What I write in these lines is not to be taken with a pinch of salt!
It is a simple final report of a truly successful expedition. No surprise: Atacama is really a space place. Then there was the project, funded by the National Geographic Society (the first of La Venta), and a team really up to the task. The fact is that we are all back tired but happy, with the salt still on, and many good memories.
The objectives of the expedition were mainly three: to explore, document and carry out scientific research. To accomplish the first task we have scoured two new areas never visited by "men with helmets", more than thirty kilometers south of the areas explored by the Triestine friends of the Eugenio Boegan Commission. And these areas have given us several caves, some very beautiful, for a total development of over 3 kilometers. We also found the presence of another area where it will not be difficult to find other systems yet to be explored.
Scientific research, on the other hand, included microbiological and mineralogical sampling, meteorological monitoring, radon measurements, and geological-structural and geomorphological surveys, both in and outside the cave. To do these surveys we used the laser scanner of the Company Virtual Graphic Agency (ViGea) of Reggio Emilia, making 3D models of 3 caves and various external morphologies, as well as aerial photographs taken by the drone. Radon grotto measurements, on the other hand, were possible thanks to the involvement of the Bologna U-Series, while the meteorological measures were followed by the CNR-Ibimet Sassari. Over sixty samples will be analyzed in the coming months, for mineralogy and chemistry in the Dipteris of the University of Genoa and for microbiology by the CSIC-IRNAS of Seville. These are the most important analyzes, never done before, that could lead to discover microorganisms capable of surviving in this hypersaline environment, in the darkness of the caves. Forms of life, these, which we think we can find in similar Martian environments. In short, speleologists at the service of the astronauts, once again!
Finally, as requested by National Geographic, all activities have been extensively documented with photographs and videos, with an uninterrupted work of several people who had this specific task. And you will see, the results will be exceptional, worthy of the fascinating places we were lucky enough to discover and document.
Now we are all back, and we find it difficult to recollect the reality of the asphalt roads and the green in the landscape. Almost with nostalgia we think of the hours spent in the car on those roads that looked like furrowed fields, between dust and colors that ranged between blinding white to gray and red. And that deafening silence of the nights under the southern sky, interrupted by the snaps of salt that expands and shrinks. But were we really on Earth?
Jo De Waele
Participants: Salvatore Cabras, Carla Corongiu, Roberto Cortelli, Vittorio Crobu, Norma Damiano, Umberto Del Vecchio, Jo De Waele, Riccardo De Luca, Stefano Fabbri, Roberto Ferrara, Stefano Marighetti, Andrea Meloni, Claudio Pastore, Luca Pisani, Alessio Romeo, Patrizio Rubcich, Laura Sanna, Tommaso Santagata, Marco Vattano.
Sponsors: Amphibious, De Walt, Ferrino, Insula, Intermatica, Mytho, Scurion, Tiberino.
Partners: Parco Nazionale Valle della Luna, Parco Nazionale de Los Flamencos CONAF, Cile, Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali-Università di Bologna, Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, dell’Ambiente e della Vita-Università di Genova, CSIC-IRNAS di Siviglia, Dipartimento di Fisica-Università di Atacama Copiapò, Dipartimento di Geoscienze-Università di Padova, CNR-Istituto di Biometeorologia di Sassari, Vigea - Virtual Graphic Agency Reggio Emilia, U-series Bologna.
Following reports of the period when the shipment was in progress and only published on Facebook
Enter the Atacama 2018 expedition, sponsored by National Geographic, which will see us engaged in the Cordillera de la Sal (Chile), from 10 to 28 March.
After the necessary institutional contacts, the research activities started in several known caves and on some external areas characterized by particular morphologies. The first excursions are also used to settle in these areas with a severe climate and temperatures that, during the day, exceed 40 ° C.
The research of this expedition is carried out by speleologists, technicians with laser scanners and geologists, and everything is continuously documented by photographs and videos. Today a team of eight people is taking part in the Cressi System, the largest karst system in the Cordillera, explored by the Triestine friends of the Caves Commission Eugenio Boegan in the past few years, with the aim of documenting and doing scientific research. They will stay out 3 nights. The others will alternate between documentation and geological studies in the area of ??the Cueva dell'Arco de la Paciencia and Cueva dell'Aire (also these caves explored by the Triestines) and exploration in the new areas to the south.
Jo De Waele and Marco Vattano
Un pizzico di sale
It's evening, we're all gathered around the base camp table. We have just finished dinner and we are sipping a glass of Chilean red wine. We begin to discuss the activity of the following day, the goal will be to find roads that allow access by off-road vehicles to the inland areas of the Cordillera de la Sal. These areas have been identified by satellite images and show the canyons carved in the Cordillera evaporites that often disappear and reappear more downstream after hundreds of meters. These traits are invisible to images but take shape in the minds of us speleologists. Who sees the huge winding tunnels, full of concretions of various shapes and colors and some see us an impenetrable landslide that stops every step. We train the teams, two off-road vehicles will penetrate the Cordillera approaching the exploration area where four speleo will be dumped and two days will be left to explore it.
The next day we leave, entering the Plan de la Paciencia. To the west there are gentle hills painted in red, yellow, green and brown. To the east rises the white Cordillera de la Sal, which develops like a tongue to the south. On the horizon, far away, majestic Andean volcanoes with snowy peaks rise. We grind miles, heading south, along the Cordillera, behind us rise powerful clouds of dust. We reach the point identified by the satellite images, from here a track branches off from the main and heads to the east making us approach the exploration area. We follow it for a few hundred meters then the track disappears. We go down from the cars and immediately we notice the drilling of a tire. It did not take, but it was predictable, for this reason, to avoid any accident we moved in two cars. We replace the tire and have lunch with bread, ham and cheese. The sun is high in the sky and warms a lot, the air is dry and does not pull a breath of wind. We decide how to move, the car that has drilled remains in place of support to the other car that will take the explorers to the area of ??interest. We are still a couple of miles away, slowly moving on the crusts of salt that creak as we pass. After more than an hour we reach our destination where we download the material of the exploration team, we fly over the area with a drone displaying the environment that we will have to face. We say goodbye, the car starts again and the four of us stay there, in an immense and desolate salt desert. It is 4 pm, we begin to climb a canyon walking on the dormant bed of the stream where we proceed on salt crusts between walls of plaster and sandstone tens of meters high. The canyon ends up against the mountain, this time with salt and here is the cave! We begin to go through a meander of reduced dimensions, but frequently the hypogean sections alternate with open-air stretches. The canyon-cave alternation is repeated until it meets a cavity of about 300 m of development with marvelous speleothems of very white halite, sometimes transparent, globular, tubular stalactites, angel hair lawns, eccentrics, stalactites with cubic macrocrystalline growths. We document with photos and videos these forms going up the riverbed up to arrive in a circular dolom of the diameter of 20 m that brings us on the summit of the plateau where we continue the path on pointed penitentes. It's 7:30 pm, a strong wind blows from the west, we still have about forty minutes before the dark comes. We head towards the field along the canyon explored in the afternoon. Darkness drops rapidly, the first stars begin to sparkle. Let's have a stellar dinner, then stay awake to admire this wonder of southern sky.
Navigating unrepentant to the Cressi field
The night is falling fast. We are walking on a plateau that seems immense, it is difficult to guess the path in such a flat and homogeneous environment, so we are driving two GPS. We are loaded with water, food and equipment to spend three days at the Cressi cave, the main cavity of the Cordillera de la Sal.
"Look at that sky! And what a spectacular landscape around us! "Someone exclaims. I can not take my eyes off the ground, I have a heavy backpack, in addition to my material I'm carrying two bottles of water that I keep tied to the backpack supporting them with my hands. My steps are illuminated by a dim and pale led light that allows me to pass unharmed between the penitentes. The penitentes are pinnacles of salt high tens of centimeters very close together that make the journey difficult.
"Ciurma!" Exclaims Captain Gambalunga. "The direction is right, the important thing is not to end where the penitentes are tall, thick and sharp."
Ten minutes later, as if not mentioned, we find ourselves navigating in a sea of ??dangerous sharp penitentes. I'm sweating, the sunscreen smeared on my forehead dripping in my eyes blinding me further. We continue to move fast, now it is pitch dark, the throat and lips are more and more dry. Suddenly the GPS track stops, we have arrived, the Cressi cave field is just below. Breath raised. Now I can leave the bottles of water and look up, the starry sky of the desert is truly wonderful.
In the evening at dinner at the base camp we stayed in 11 and we know that 6 will go to the Cueva dell'Arco to make 3D relief with laser scanner. "But do we have to go to Cressi too? And what are we going to do? "Is the question that rebounds among the last 5 left," We could go to zone 5 to explore, it looks promising! "; "Come on, go to zone 5!". But ... the message arrived on the satellite phone at 9 o'clock in the morning is clear "Bring another 50-meter rope, two drums, and a drone". Evidently the team that has been there for three days has not been able to finish the documentation works at the most important cave in the Cordillera because it is short of material. We prepare all the stuff and we are ready to be in the desert with the team back at 17:00. Both we and them break the minute. Short briefing to understand what to do and start the climb along the three flights of salt and gypsum that separate us from the plateau that will lead us to the canyon of Cueva. The backpacks weigh on the shoulders of each of us and the darkness begins to fall, we follow the GPS track avoiding dolines and walking on the penitentes. At 9:30 pm, half an hour plus half an hour, we finally begin to descend into the gorge to reach the camp. Our task will be to produce video documentation of the cave, passing through a well to be armed that we do not know exactly the depth (but we have a 50 meter rope, so ...), reach the spectacular skylight, one of the many Cressi entrances, to do geostrutal reliefs in the Cueva and recover the Radon detectors. The next morning we start the video activity and geostructural, we identify the points where the detectors are (which we will recover the next day during the disarmament to leave them still 24 hours on display). The cave passes from low rolling mills to imposing environments, we follow the river of halite towards the valley, by-pass whitish salt lakes and descend a little pool of about ten meters adorned with imposing concretions. We are finally on the pozzone. It is impressive in size, about forty meters deep and at least 20 wide. We understand immediately that the rig will not be simple. The starting attack is in solid salt, but what comes next we have to arrange it between paracordas and banks of sediments of not very solid sandstone, doubling and tripling the points of fractionation. Time passes and when we are at the base, we sling along the cave again to reach the skylight. But first we go out in a spectacular canyon. We continue the path to the skylight, but ... there is still a climb to do not climb and we have no more material with us ... unfortunately a hundred meters from the goal we have to stop. We still produced a lot of material and when we go out we ask via satellite to base camp if we have to stay one more day to get to the skylight, but they tell us it is not necessary (a little relief, fatigue is felt). The next day we close the disarmament and the little left to do, a drone ride on the canyon and the penitentes. At 4.30 pm we redo our backpacks, moving towards the 2 and a half hours of walking in the desert that separate us from the appointment. When we arrive we are strangely happy with exhaustion and smile with our sun-splitting lips…
A salty and alive world
I find myself in this desolate landscape again. My eyes sweep from right to left and I only see warm colors from brown to gray and white that contrast with the blue sky. In this world there is no green. I think: "The only living beings here are us", but I know it can not be this way. Now life seems to be everywhere on Earth, in geysers at 80 ° C, at the bottom of dark oceans, in the ice sheets of Greenland and in deep polls within the Earth's crust. Life is also here, in the salt of the Atacama Desert. It can not be seen, it is not heard, but with the appropriate techniques we can discover it. In reality, some of his clues are in the salt caves. Butterflies that flit here and there, some scolopendra that eats something, a bird, surely a migrant who is passing through, who is not afraid of man and approaches intrigued towards us. Armed with gloves, masks, tweezers and sterile jars we scrap the walls, floors and concretions in search of organisms capable of surviving in these conditions. We take samples of salt, sediment, strange minerals, to see if they contain life, the microscopic one. Microorganisms adapted to this extreme environment, in the dark, in salt, with little organic substance. Our mission is to discover these microscopic forms of life, study them, describe them as far as possible, in this analogous Martian.
Jo De Waele
Scanning drops of water in the desert
Finally here we are. It was a long time since I dreamed of seeing these caves in salt and walking through the immense canyons of the Atacama desert. In 2015 I was not able to take part in the first expedition of this project, which also involved the use of a laser scanner to detect caves in salt and other strange external morphologies such as furrowed fields called "penitentes". This year the program is much more intense and, in addition to 3D surveys, microbiological investigations will also be done to understand which forms of micro-lives populate this desert. Together with Umberto, Stefano and Roberto, our task during this expedition is to detect with laser scanner and photogrammetry the same areas detected in 2015 to compare the data and evaluate the differences that have existed in these years. The caves in the salt, in fact, have characteristic morphologies linked to the high solubility of the rock and in relation to the rainy events, very rare here, can undergo considerable changes.
We start from the Chulacao and Lechuza del Campanario caves, in the Valle della Luna Park. These caves had already been detected with traditional techniques by American speleologists in 2003 and with laserscanner in 2015, but thanks to a tool that allows to detect in a shorter time we can complete the 3D survey in much less time.
In the end we made 110 scans that will allow us to get the full 3D survey of these caves and compare the data obtained this year with those of 2015.
We have little time to devote to data processing, just a day off in San Pedro to make a backup of the data collected and leave to explore a new area in the south of the Cordillera del Sal. Immediately afterwards we return to work with a scanner and drone to detect the Cueva dell'Arco discovered and detected by the friends of the CGEB of Trieste in the north-west part of the Cordillera; even this cavity was already only partially detected in 2015 with the laser scanner. Unlike the first two caves, where in the evening we could return to San Pedro due to the proximity, in this case we remain isolated from the rest of the group for three days and finally I can sleep in the desert and admire the impressive starry sky of the hemisphere Southern Hemisphere. The first night I pass for hours with eyes upward and I struggle to get to sleep, I also try to count the stars but they are too many and at the end I can only sleep for a few hours.
The day after we begin the work, the days in the cave run fast and in the evening we go out to return to the field, prepare something to eat and then back into the sleeping bag with its eyes facing the sky. The second night I can sleep more, maybe even thanks to the tiredness that starts to be felt. The day after we return to the cave to complete the survey, which we end in the early hours of the afternoon. As scheduled then we also have the time to do photogrammetry outside, then towards evening in the distance we see the dust raised by the car that is about to come and take us. These three days have really passed quickly but I know I will struggle to get rid of the incredible beauties of these places for a long time.
Now we are back here in San Pedro, a couple of days of break from the caves are needed to fix the collected data. There are also groups that were around for explorations in other fields, so between the alignment of a scan and the other we receive updates of the explorations made in recent days. The results seem promising, and I'm happy because I hope this will give us the opportunity to return to these beautiful places.
In the south of the Cordillera de la Sal
Jumping from one field to another, we are heading to the area called 4 where a series of canyons to be explored have been identified. We are located in the southernmost part of the Cordillera de la Sal. The first day we prepare for a long walk to reach the possible caves, we decide to walk on the ridge to get our bearings better, here the penitentes are less "penitent" and we easily reach the upper part where the 360° panorama surprises us on expanses of salt. We identify the first canyon, we walk along it, but soon after we realize that there are not many possibilities, in fact we find small caves interspersed with long stretches of collapsed. So we come from the other side of the Cordillera to the east, a little discouraged. However, the research continues, and after a couple of caves about fifty meters long we reach another canyon with a large portal, found! And next to it there are other gorges to check. We return to the field enjoying the view despite the strong wind that makes the sun more bearable.
The next day we return to the cave "long" and we divide into more 'teams, with Salvatore I take care of the relief of the cave while the others continue the search in the canyons to the side. We use all day long detecting a meander about 700 m long, alternating narrow passages and low to high stretches with two levels. In the meantime, Vitto reaches us to document everything.
The others find another cave and Carla, Stefano and Andrea detect about 400 m.
We return to the field satisfied with the results and we enjoy the landscape that with the light of the sunset takes on very suggestive colors. The tiredness is felt but the rest at the field under the starry sky makes you forget everything.
The next day, they come to pick us up with two off-road vehicles and after two and a half hours of travel we return to the base camp in San Pedro de Atacama.