Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cordillera Blanca (Peru) Research Expedition

[Editor’s note:   The American Alpine Institute has teamed up with the American Climber Science Program to support a variety of important research projects in mountain environments.  High mountain regions – especially those with glaciers – are a treasure trove of important data that can reveal a lot about the functioning and health of alpine ecosystems and their individual components as well as inform upon large-scale phenomena like climate change.  Click on the link to read about the Institute’s commitment to alpine research and that research’s potential for helpful impact on social policy (e.g., land management) as well as more on the research to be done by the author.

Elsa Balton is a participant in the current research expedition in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.  At the American Alpine Institute she has worked as executive assistant to the Institute’s president and as research assistant on green energy and carbon consumption offsets.  She is a senior molecular biology and Spanish major at Western Washington University.  During this, her first trip about 14,000 feet, she is posting narratives that describe some of the challenges and rewards she experiences while conducting research on microbes in a rugged environment at high altitude.  Her third posting describes her first week in the mountains and sums up the various research projects that are underway.

First Sampling Area:  Ulta Valley

Our first set of sampling points was located in the Ulta Valley of the Cordillera Blanca.  The valley is located at the feet of the Huascaran Glacier.  Twin-peaked Nevado Hauscaran is Peru's highest summit, rising to 22,205 feet (6,768 m).  We also enjoyed great views of Nevados Ulta, Chopicalqui, and Hualcan.  A glacier-fed river runs through the valley and is perfect for much of our water sampling.  

Our base camp in the Ulta Valley. Neha Malhan photo.

Since this is my first post talking in depth about the research side of our expedition, I thought it would be helpful to briefly describe what each group is studying to provide some context for the rest of the trip.

Kodner Lab – Snow algae and water microbes:  This is my project, and I've written an article on its context and goals here. I'm working under Robin Kodner, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biology, Western Washington University (WWU.)

Alpine environments are highly dynamic, and we realized when we arrived in the Ulta Valley that it would not be possible to take as many snow samples as we had panned because access to the snowfields we had in mind was extremely difficult.  Glacier retreat in this valley has created very broken and technical conditions at pints that used to provide easy access.

Fortunately the Ulta Valley is full of glacial rivers and alpine lakes, and we were able to modify our hypotheses to include water algae and microbes.  Sampling these microbes will provide us with a wealth of data about what types of organisms are present in the area and how they contribute to the ecosystem.  We also hope to get good snow samples from high elevations in the other two valleys in which we'll be doing research with help of the climbers who will be joining us there.

Dr. Kodner and I taking DNA samples of microbes found in glacial streams. 
We will take the samples back to WWU and perform a 
genome survey of them in the fall.   Penelope Kipps photo. 

Bird Photography and Identification:  I talked to Penelope Kipps (WWU) about her project on birds of the Cordillera Blanca's subalpine and alpine valleys.  The varieties of species living here seasonally and year round have not been tracked, and this group had a very good first week in the mountains  photographing and identifying the different species.  Once  identified, future researchers can determine what other areas may be included in their annual calendar of movement and potentially be in a position to identify methods and gain support for preserving these unique alpine species.

Survey of Aquatic Macroinvertebrates:  Katie Lewis (WWU) and a small team are working on sampling aquatic macroinvertebrates.  Since macroinvertebrates are a critical part of the freshwater food chain, monitoring their presence and abundance are good indicators of how the stream communities are changing.  They are very sensitive to water chemistry, temperature, and pollutants, and as a consequence, they are very useful in monitoring both climate change and human impacts.  Katie and her group will be comparing their data to past research to better understand the types and speeds of changes in stream communities. Katie's group is working under Ruth Soffield, PhD, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Huxley College of the Environment (WWU).

Katie and Nicole collecting aquatic macroinvertebrates 
with help from John All, PhD.  Penelope Kipps photo.

Ethnoagricultural studies: Morgan Scott (WWU) is working with rural agriculturalists and hopefully also a student from the regional university in Huaraz to measure the impacts that state-sponsored development and climate change have on their daily lives.  A similar study was done in the area ten years ago, and Morgan plans to add to the data collected then, compare the findings, and determine the course of change over that ten-year period.

Terrestrial Arthropod Survey:  I talked to Claire Bresnan (Colorado College) who is working with  Rebecca Cole, PhD (University of Hawaii).  Their research project involves the trapping of terrestrial arthropods from different locations in the valley both inside and outside the polylepus forests (a type of tree common in the Cordillera Blanca) where they are common.  Claire and Dr. Cole are creating a survey of arthropod species in different high altitude ecosystems with the goal of determining how they are being affected by deforestation.

Examining one of the insect specimens. The collection of samples is rather simple.
Claire places cups containing water in holes in the ground and in go the arthropods.  No bait required. Photo Penelope Kipps.

Measuring effects of over-grazing on biomass: Neha Malhan (WWU) also worked with Dr. Cole this past week on a different project.  They worked on taking biomass samples both inside and outside of grazing areas for non-native cows and looking at how much biomass is lost over what period of time due to grazing in alpine valleys.  Cattle exclusion zones from which cattle are physically barred from walking and grazing are key in making accurate determinations.

Water quality sampling:  Eli Merrell and Nick Woltkamp (WWU), working under the direction of Dr. Soffield, are taking water quality samples from both alpine streams and lakes to see how pollutants such as heavy metals (which have been washed into the waterways as a result of glacial retreat) have affected the water chemistry in alpine valleys.  They are also looking at levels of dissolved organic carbon in waterways.  They will compare their data with Dr. Soffield's research from previous years to determine the static or evolving health of alpine waterways.

The water quality team with members of the Kodner Lab taking 
samples from an iron seep in the Ulta Valley.  Penelope Kipps photo.

Lichen Sampling to track pollution:  Aaron Haddeland (WWU) is working on another of Dr. Soffield's projects which involves taking lichen samples from trees in alpine valleys. Since lichen gets 100% of its nutrients from the air, it is a great bioindicator of pollution.  Aaron's samples will help figure out which areas of the Cordillera Blanca are suffering from pollution and to what relative degrees.

Soil Sampling:  Another project directed by Dr. Soffield involves taking soil samples to check for carbon and nitrogen levels. The goal of this project is learn more about the effects of agriculture on soil environments.

Vegetation studies:  Gus Landefeld of WWU is working with John All, PhD (Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Huxley College of the Environment, WWU)  to survey vegetation in alpine valleys. Gus's research will help determine which types of vegetation are common in the Cordillera Blanca and can be used for applications such as geographic information systems.

Life in Ulta Valley

When not hiking and working on our research projects, we passed time by playing cards, enjoying the delicious food cooked by our local chefs, and taking in the incredible scenery surrounding us.  Some of us even learned a few words and sentences in Kichwa from our enthusiastic chef Joaquin.  Kichwa is an indigenous language that is a regional variety of Quechua which is spoken by about one million people in the central and northern Andes. 

One night, our chefs prepared our dinner in a pachamanca, which is a traditional Peruvian style of cooking food in a big hole in the ground. They first heat rocks over a wood fire, then line the hole with  the hot rocks, place the food over the rocks, and then cover everything with grass, dirt, and additional rocks to help keep the heat in.  The meal included corn, potatoes, chicken, and herbs and cooked for about  three hours.  It was delicious and fun to see it prepared in this traditional manner.  Photo Penelope Kipps.

We were not immune to the challenges of this type of expedition, including food-related illness, weather extremes, and overall exhaustion. This first valley provided us with a great opportunity to "practice" before heading out for longer periods of time, so what we learned about life in the alpine wilderness will serve us well for the remainder of the trip.

Bedtime view in the Ulta Valley.  Neha Malhan photo.

Everyone is looking forward to our next move back into the mountains which will take us to the beautiful Quilcayhuanca and Cayesh Valleys.

We'll be back the night of August 2nd, and I will plan to provide an update on our research and high valley experiences then.


--Elsa Balton, Kodner Laboratory and American Alpine Institute Research Assistant

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