Drilling Deep: From a lake bottom in Peru, clues to climate history

Publication Date

Layers of sediment from the bottom of Lake Junín, at an elevation of 13,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, hold the record of climate change as far back as 200,000 years. In the summer of 2015, Don Rodbell, professor of geology at Union College, led an international team of 30 paleoclimatologists and students who set out to answer some urgent questions about Earth’s climate history.

Here, we present some observations and a five-day travelogue.

About Lake Junín

Lake Junín, the site of the drilling project, is an ancient shallow lake with an area of about 200 square miles. It was dammed in 1932 to regulate water for the Amazon basin’s booming hydroelectric production, which today accounts for 70 percent of Peru’s electricity. The lake and the adjacent grazing areas have been contaminated by runoff and dust from the nearby mining of copper, lead and zinc. That pollution was the subject of an earlier study by Rodbell and his colleagues. Despite the contamination, the lake is a destination for birders who come to see the endangered Junín Grebe and Junín Rail.

Team Union

Grace Delgado ’14 and Nick Weidhaas ’15 were part of the science team led by Rodbell. Grace is a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, Nick at the University of Pittsburgh. Both did field research with Rodbell while they were students at Union. Other members of the international science team came from, among other places, the University of Pittsburgh, MIT, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and Florida Institute of Technology.

The JDP and Union

The Junín Drilling Project is the first major international drilling project run out of a small college like Union. The Universities of Pittsburgh, Colorado, Massachusetts, Arizona, Duke, Stanford are all R1 universities that do this kind of work. Many other research universities in Europe are involved as well. The LacCore Facility at the University of Minnesota, where the cores from Lake Junín will be stored and analyzed, is the largest facility of its kind in the world.


Delays are a part of big science projects like this one. They began at the docks in Lima, where Rodbell spent the better part of two weeks while customs officials inspected the contents of containers that were shipped from the U.S. (He was required to pass a safety course, with a final exam in Spanish, before entering the docks. Fortunately, the course introduced him to some new dockworkers who were happy to help with the unloading in exchange for lunch.) By late July, the equipment arrived at the northern shore of Lake Junín, and the barge was assembled.

Other delays were mechanical. The launch was delayed by a clogged fuel pump on the tow boat. Two days were lost while a member of the drilling crew flew down from Utah with an inexpensive part. The hardware stores and welding shops of Carhuamayo, a small town a few miles north of the launch site, were frequent destinations for spare parts and repairs.

As August approached, Rodbell and other team members spent most mornings over breakfast reviewing the status of various delays. (Rodbell’s wife, Cecilia, a native of Lima and an experienced guide, played a key role in logistics.) They also planned alternative activities for the stir-crazy scientists. Hiking the nearby mountains was a popular choice. Others shopped for textiles in the Tarma bazaar. Some stayed in at the hotel, recovering from altitude sickness or intestinal bugs.

Hard hats

Hard hats were de rigeur on the coring barge, and members of team Union personalized theirs with indelible markers. On the front, each drew a large “Block U.” Rodbell added his initials “DTR.” Nick Weidhaas added “N4” (he is Nicholas Weidhaas IV). Grace Delgado added “Delgadog,” her Union email handle.

Found in translation

Spanish fluency is a must for scientists working in Peru, and knowledge of Quechua (the native Incan tongue) is especially helpful in the Central Andes. Rodbell prefers Spanish-speaking students to join him in fieldwork. On Lake Junín, Grace Delgado, a native of Ecuador, and Nick Weidhaas often served as interpreters for the American and Peruvian crew.

Don Rodbell: geologist, athlete

Geology field work – which often involves heavy gear, long days, tough terrain and demanding conditions – is perhaps best suited for those who derive satisfaction from testing the limits of the human body. In other words, endurance athletes like Don Rodbell.

Rodbell grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., where the hills and mountains of the Berkshires beckoned him and his two brothers to cross country running and skiing. At 54, Rodbell maintains the same compact athletic frame that made him an elite runner and Division I Nordic skier at St. Lawrence University. During college, he also participated in the Boston Marathon and a relay run across the U.S. Few could have been surprised when he picked the University of Colorado in Boulder, the mecca of endurance sports, for his master’s and Ph.D.

His current fitness regimen consists of running, cycling and skiing on the five kilometers of ski trails he grooms on his property outside of Schenectady. He also gathers about four cords of firewood each year. He is a regular at regional running and Nordic races. Last fall, he joined a brother and several friends on a one-day 100-mile bike ride in the Berkshires that ended with a climb up Mount Greylock.