Friday, April 9, 2010

Welcome to the
Lago de Atitlan 2010 Expedition. The trip is labeled “2010” because there is a significant amount of curiosity developing about the ecological system of this lake, and the only way to satisfy this curiosity about Lago de Atitlan is to study it … there may be future expeditions.

The Beginning: Eliska Rejmankova, UC Davis, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, visited Lago de Atitlan seven years ago to study Spanish in the lakeside town of San Pedro. She returned another time and noticed a “bloom” of algae in the lake (a rapid increase in the algae population). This algal growth on the surface of the lake was an indication that the ecology of the lake had changed. As luck would have it, Dr. Rejmankova has some understanding of the algae that affect lakes worldwide. She has organized this trip to allow experts in various disciplines to share their knowledge of the science of lakes (limnology) and watershed management, and learn more about what makes Lago de Atitlan unique.

This two-week expedition, funded with a research planning grant from the US National Science Foundation, brings together experts from the many disciplines necessary for understanding
Lago de Atitlan and suggesting solutions to water quality challenges. Specialists in limnology,water chemistry, environmental toxicology, environmental engineering, urban planning, and more are participating. There are many collaborators, including universities from three countries (University of California, Davis, University of Nevada Reno, Arizona State University, Universidad del Valle, Universidad Rafael Landivar, University of South Bohemia), the Desert Research Institute, and local organizations working to protect the lake, including Amigos del Lago, and Todos Por El Lago.

Support and funding from local organizations has been critical to the planning of this trip, and are essential while we are here.

It is fortunate that there have been some scientific studies of
Lago de Atitlan, which provide “snap shots” of lake health. Many important questions about the ecology of Lago de Atitlan remain that may best be answered through a long term, coordinated monitoring program. This expedition is a start.

Expedition Goals:
1. Conduct a detailed survey of
Lago de Atitlan
2. Use the information gained and new relationships to:
a. Design a lake monitoring program
b. Suggest efficient water quality management practices
c. Identify possible future collaborative projects
3. Provide training to Guatemalan students
4. Hold educational forums with local communities

Comments from expedition participants
April 10, 2010, Houston Airport, 6:00am

Dr. Sudeep Chandra, Assistant Professor of Limnology and Fisheries Conservation

Hello fellow citizens interested in global freshwater conservation,

This is my first entry. I am a little nervous but very excited about our expedition to Lake
Atitlan. So far we are off to a great start despite hang ups and unfriendly service from Continental Airlines in Sacramento. We have a strong interdisciplinary team of limnologists, hydrologists, engineers, wetland ecologists, invasions ecologists, paleoecologists, and communicators of various ages (20’s to 70’s) and experiences (academics and consultants) from various US/ European institutions (University of Nevada- Reno, University of California, Davis, University of Arizona) that will soon be joining our colleagues from Guatemala (Universidad del Valle, Universidad Rafael Landivar, University of South Bohemia, Todos por el Lago, Guatemalan government). Our goals are to work closely with our Guatemalan colleagues to a) conduct a snapshot study of Lake Atitlan, one of the world’s most unique lakes located in the highlands of Guatemala, b) train our counterparts in various aspects of long-term ecological monitoring, and c) work with our colleagues in Guatemala to educate local citizens about lake ecology in general. For those folks not familiar with Lake Atitlan, think about Lake Tahoe or Crater Lake (Oregon). This lake is similar in structure (it is large and deep) and traditionally has been very clear and productive. However in Dec 2008, Lake Atitlan turned green which was quite a shock to the local, national, and international community.

I am excited about this trip to meet colleagues and people interested in conserving their lake. Our science team has been incredible back home at trying to use science to guide public policy at Lake Tahoe. I am a little nervous also since I have never participated in an expedition as large as this one both in scope as well as number of laboratory items we are using that will help us determine the changes at the lake. We have packed over 36 boxes and just preparing for this trip including purchasing and packing these items has taken weeks. In any case, I guess we will soon arrive in Guatemala and by tomorrow if all goes well we will be at the most famous mountain lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan!

Eliska Rejmankova, Professor, Environmental Science and Policy, UC Davis

I am freaking out because it seems there is no way the details of this expedition will come together. There are so many boxes to pack! And so many important details to keep organized. I have what seems like thousands of letters from USAID agency to prepare us for Guatemalan customs, for example, which seems to get more complicated every day.

But then I remember that this expedition is a unique experience that is worth all this craziness and I should enjoy every bit of it. How often do you have a group of >30 people spanning close to 60 years of age difference, and coming from several universities and three different countries, trying to sort out the problems of one beautiful lake? What a wealth of experience and what an opportunity to learn (including learning how to blog)!

Bob Richards, Retired “Blue Collar” Limnologist since 2004, formerly of the UC Davis Tahoe Research Group from 1969 to 2004

This is my first entry, as well, on a great adventure. This is a nice return to “expeditionary”
limnology after a hiatus of some 17 years since a trip to Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia with Dr. Goldman and others. The similarities are evident: a group of scientists from diverse disciplines, long lines due to baggage handling, and many, many boxes of equipment to wrestle around! Being tired in airports!

I was a bit apprehensive about the check-in and all the “new” safety procedures since I had not flown out of the country since 1993 and the 9/11 tragedy. Everything went more smoothly than I thought was possible. Great!

I’m looking forward to seeing a lake as beautiful and unique as Tahoe, but in a wholly different way. I also look forward to meeting and working with the Guatemalan people in ways to help protect their resources. Perhaps we can contribute some practical knowledge gained at Tahoe over many years of accumulated experience. We have talked about this as a natural outgrowth of our work for many years and now, here’s a chance to really apply it. Exciting!

Mark Grismer, Hydrology and Engineering Professor, UC Davis & Tahoe Environmental Research Center
As we wait in the Houston airport, I recall that this is an exciting opportunity to return to my first overseas experience in Guatemala some 34 years ago when I came to work in the hill country with the Mayan (Quiche). On the way to the mountain villages that had been destroyed in part following the Feb., 1976 earthquake, we stayed two days at
Lago Atitlan. An impressive site then, and I suspect very different now, but part of what kept me focused on water resources the next three decades. I am eager to return and see how my last decade of experience with volcanic soils, erosion and water quality in the Tahoe Basin compares with that in Atitlan. We have assembled a first-rate team with a wide range of experience and talents that should make working in Guatemala a fascinating period. While working in Nicaragua this past year, I had hoped to make it into Guatemala, but could not manage it logistically, so this presents a chance to continue what I hope to be more water resources related work across Central & South America.

Emily Carlson, Biogeochemist, University of California, Davis
This is my first time travelling to Guatemala, and I am pretty excited to see the lake that is touted to be the most beautiful in the world. But I am nervous about setting up my chemistry lab in a hotel room, unpacking my boxes to find broken flasks and glassware, and still trying to get the most reliable results I can. This is a great, dynamic group, and I am excited to work with each and every one of them! I just hope that I can get out on the lake more, not holed up in my hotel room lab the whole two weeks. This should be a great trip, I hope I am able to instill in the Guatemalan students some of the skills they need to be successful environmental scientists- especially the how –tos of basic chemical assays.

Annie Caires, research faculty, University of Nevada, Reno
I am very much looking forward to this expedition now that it is a reality. Until this point, there has not been too much anticipation allowed. Several weeks of ordering supplies and nearly 4 full days of packing supplies has not left too much time for excitement or thinking about anything except which items we may have forgotten. Now we are in the Houston airport and I’m not sure what time it is, only that it seems unreal that we will be in Guatemala within a few hours. The flight into Houston on top of a head cold seems to have left me temporarily (I hope) deaf. It has made it difficult to communicate in English, and I imagine it will make it extremely difficult to figure out what is going on in Spanish. In any case, I am very much looking forward to seeing the lake and the country. I feel very fortunate to be part of such a diverse group of scientists and I think I will learn an incredible amount. Viva Expedition

Clint Davis, graduate student (algae geek), University Nevada Reno/Desert Research Institute
I am currently sitting in Houston airport waiting for connecting flight to Guat City. We had a bit of a rough start last night in Sac (i.e. down one person and frantic check-in process). I am hopeful that logistics will smooth out a bit, but am not entirely optimistic. Ahh well, to be expected when taking a limnology lab on the road, let alone into another country (I would say I have some experience with the former and none at all with the later!). Thinking this expedition could set stage for a potential career track in working outside the US or perhaps, set me on a course for thinking still thinking globally but working locally!!

Jessica Corman, graduate student (ecosystem ecology & limnology), Arizona State University
Hello all! I’
ve just met up with the rest of the crew headed to Lake Atitlan. It is great to finally meet the other members of the expedition and put a face to the names of folks I’ve chatted with over email and the telephone. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that all the equipment will met us on the other end of our flight…

We arrived in Guatemala City late morning and held our breaths at the luggage carousel. Thankfully, all of our equipment boxes arrived (and appear intact). Customs was a challenge only because we had to move the boxes multiple times to give customs staff access to them for inspection and weighing.
Gracias to our local partners, including Nancy Giron, for making this a smooth process!

We left Guatemala City and drove toward
Lago de Atitlan in one vehicle. Not all of the US team arrived this morning, but those of us who were together had the opportunity to get to know each other.

Traffic leaving Guatemala City was very heavy, so we received a slow tour of part of this large city. The municipal buses, formerly US school buses, provide an important transportation option for many residents. The buses are brightly painted and some have colored lights on their exterior. They are quite full, as they have been retrofitted to accommodate more people than they did in the US. Luggage and belongings are strapped on top, and we saw one young man climb out the bus window while the bus was traveling down the highway, in order to grab his package before the bus stopped. It was scary to watch, but it was clear he’d done it before.

We stopped for lunch part way to
Lago de Atitlan. It gave us a chance to formally introduce ourselves and tell each other a bit about how we’ll contribute to this trip. We stayed longer than expected because we learned of an auto accident up ahead that had closed the highway.

This photo shows (L to R) Margaret Dix, Bob Richards, and Mark
Grismer discussing sampling techniques.

We eventually made it to the lake (after a severe traffic delay due to another car accident) and arrived at the Natural Reserve of
Atitlan, owned and operated by Alberto Rivera. Alberto is a community leader who is dedicated to preserving the health of Lago de Atitlan and the communities around it.

We moved boxes (again) and transported them to the two places set aside for the expedition’s laboratories.


  1. This post is fantastic! Came through perfectly :) Hope you're having a safe and fun time... I know you are.

  2. Hello! I live part time in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan and work with the Mayan Indians and their beautiful beadwork. I'm also working with other people on solutions to the problems of sewage and algae in the lake. Any updates on your expedition and research? We were glad to find that you all came from UC Davis (North of Half Moon Bay where I spent many happy years studying the tidepools) and hope to find out what your research came to.

    Thanks for all your efforts... What email address can we contact you at?

    CatherineTodd2 at gmail dot com