Penitentes, An Otherworldly Wonder

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Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two graduate students, at the edge of a penitente field on a Chilean volcano where researchers unexpectedly found algae. Steven K. Schmidt

Thanks to JoAnna Klein for bringing this question, and another Chilean wonder, to our attention:

If Algae Clings to Snow on This Volcano, Can It Grow on Other Desolate Worlds?

Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.

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The penitentes are thought to result from an unusual mix of wind, temperature fluctuations and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Steve Schmidt

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Volcan Llullaillaco is Mars on Earth — or about as close to it as you can get. At 22,000 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest active volcano on Earth. Most of the mountain is a barren, red landscape of volcanic rock and dust, with thin, dry air, intense sunlight and winds that will blow your tent down the mountain.

While the ground can heat up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperatures rarely reach above freezing. When snow falls, it turns to gas just as it hits the earth. Occasionally, snow can collect in windblown banks, which then melt into icy spires up to 16 feet tall. The Spaniards called these “nieves penitentes,” penitent ones, because they look like hooded monks doing penance.

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Steve Schmidt

These conditions high up on the volcano made it seem about as lifeless as Mars. But a team of researchers led by Steven K. Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies extreme life, have discovered microbes living in and around the penitentes at 17,300 feet above sea level, about one thousand feet above the point at which vegetation stops on Volcan Llullaillaco. Continue reading

National Park of the Week: Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

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Source: nz-autraliatours.com

New Zealand’s oldest national park and the fourth national park to be created in the world, Tongariro National Park is internationally recognized for its outstanding volcanic features and is historically venerated by the Maori people. The park encircles three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Raupahu and covers almost 80,000 hectares of contrasting terrain. The three volcanoes are active, Raupehu being one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but that does not deter visitors from hiking up to the top and gazing out into the exotic conic formations.

Continue reading

Volcano Sandboarding Update: Part 1

As promised, I have more photos of Volcán Cerro Negro (I’m still looking for some video). The photo below shows the variety of rock size on the hike up the volcano, as well as the underside of the sleds.

Unfortunately, Pierre and I didn’t take many pictures of the actual descent, since we were preparing ourselves and didn’t think we’d be able to safely use our cameras while sledding. What we did photograph was the natural beauty of the volcano and its surroundings

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Here’s a more full explanation of how the sledding ended: The transition from the slope to level ground wasn’t as jolting as I’d feared, and I skidded to a stop just a meter or two from the slope without wiping out. Standing up, I shook the gravel out of my shorts and shirt, looking around for Pierre, who was pouring stones out of his shoes nearby. As long as you can sit straight in the middle of a sled, it seems that you can slide down the volcano with only basic protection and get away with only having to wash up afterwards.

Volcano Sandboarding

Note: More photos of the experience are in my first and second updates to this post.

Volcán Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America, last erupted in 1999. Less than twenty miles from León, a city that I will be posting about soon, the volcano’s main attraction isn’t the crater itself, although the powerful opening to the center of the Earth–which in the past three decades has spewed columns of ash and gas up to 24,000 feet high–is not unimpressive. Instead, most people climb Cerro Negro just to descend it. Why? Because its steep slopes, almost 2,400 feet high, consist of black volcanic stones, which are finer than normal gravel and heavily mixed with ash and dust. How do visitors get from top to bottom? Many locals do it by foot, running down in great leaps. Most tourists rent a wooden board with a metal underside: either a snowboard or sled design depending on their experience and daring.

The volcano and its surroundings, together known as the Reserva Natural Complejo Volcánico Pilas El Hoyo, amount to a protected area of 2,140 hectares that includes at least five different types of ecosystem. Entrance fees, as well as the rental of sleds and protective gear, somewhat help incentivize the conservation of the volcanic complex by surrounding communities, mostly farmers (cattle, peanuts, eucalyptus, corn, etc.).

Having only snowboarded once before, I opted for the sled, and Pierre did the same. We hiked up the volcano on the larger rocks (fist-sized to full boulders) for maybe fifty minutes, pausing to take photos of the beautiful hills that starkly contrasted with Continue reading