Nathalie Cabrol is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute. But just because her research focuses on the geology, ecology, and history of faraway planets doesn’t mean she stares through a telescope all day. On the contrary, Cabrol holds the world record for the highest elevation dive by a woman. And she got her record in the name of science! Cabrol climbs some of the world’s highest mountains and dives into their lakes to understand what life on other planets may have been like in the past before climate change eliminated their surface water. Cabrol sat down to chat with us about her legendary dive in the Andes and how we can learn about other planets by studying our own.
How can you study Mars from Earth?
My field is on Mars. So that makes it a big commute to get there. So I chose to go, not exactly halfway, but I climbed some way towards it.
If you want to go to Mars, you want to know what is the environment in the past and was it suitable for life? I have to go to Mars analog environments. The higher you go on earth, the thinner the atmosphere is, the more UV, and the temperature changes are the same as they are on Mars at the equator (even today). A volcanic environment is a good analog.
This is what drove me to climb the high volcanoes in the Andes. I was interested in the combination of extremes. I am a lake person. My husband and I have been promoting the idea that there were lakes on Mars. Nobody had thought about the fact that water could have pooled. Once the idea was OK in the community, we went to those very high volcanic lakes to try to understand what the environment would have been like.
What does it take to get to the bottom of the lake at the top of a mountain?
Not being afraid to put a foot in front of the other. For a long time you have to think only about that and not about the goal which is the summit. Those are very high climbs -- 20,000 foot high mountains. In the Andes climbing to 20,000 feet you have all the mountain gear on you, it’s cold, you have to get acclimatized, you go with your colleagues, and when you get there they have become your friends too.
The year where we did our diving expedition we carried 500 kilograms. That’s half a ton of equipment and we were traveling light. Believe me, we had the most competitive diving equipment possible. It was very light.