Rough Data

Warning: Research at your own risk. Welcome to the new frontier, where scientists use extreme adventure skills in the wild pursuit of knowledge.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

My forthcoming book, SCIENCE AT THE EXTREME, profiles a breed of scientists who don’t wear lab coats or hover over test tubes and formulas. What sets these researchers apart from their more sedentary peers is what they do in the field: They hang from suspension bridges, climb the world’s tallest trees, and crawl through narrow shafts into the deepest bowels of the earth. They swim with great white sharks, wade with crocodiles, rappel into active volcanoes, and scuba dive inside creaking glacial caves, gathering data in perilous, unforgiving places.

“Extreme science,” as I’ve dubbed this new style of research, is defined by a simple, time-honored principle: Screw up, and you die.

Into the Blue
The Icarus Complex

Cozying Up to the King of the Jungle
Standing in the Fire

Into the Blue

The highs and lows of glacier exploration

FEW ENDEAVORS FLIRT with death like high-altitude endoglacial cave diving. In addition to the obvious dangers of hypothermia and disorientation, an endoglacial diver risks sudden meltwater surges and bone-crushing ice-passage collapses. It’s just another day at the office for Italian physicist Giovanni Badino, a technical ice caver, high-altitude mountaineer, and scuba diver who’s been exploring the treacherous interiors of glaciers for 16 years. To do so, he rappels down an anchored rope through a moulin (a hair-thin ice shaft), dons scuba gear, and plunges into inky, nearly frozen pools of meltwater. “You have to reach out and touch the walls because there is no contrast between the air, water, and ice,”explains Badino, 47, who conducts his work in conjunction with Italy’s University of Torino.

What’s the point in penetrating the labyrinthine hearts of some the world’s highest glaciers? For one thing, to monitor water conduction and storage inside glacial ice, the largest untapped and uncontaminated reserve of fresh water left on the planet. The rush to study this “blue gold”—and forestall glacial retreat—has assumed an even greater urgency as the world’s aquifers and rivers have begun to run dry.

“We know that glaciers store enormous amounts of water,” Badino says, “but we don’t know a lot about how or where. Direct observation from scuba diving may give us some answers.” Badino’s quest to find these answers has taken him to Iceland, Argentina, Chile, and with greatest frequency, to Switzerland’s Gorner Glacier, the most cave-riddled—or “karstic”—slab of ice in the Alps. Upending conventional scientific wisdom, however, comes with a price: Badino has found only five people willing to attempt glacial cave diving with him; few colleagues want to risk their lives working under millions of tons of shifting ice. “When you are on the cutting edge,” he says wistfully, “you are always alone.”

The Icarus Complex

Rudely intruding to save a bird of prey

ON THE GIRDERS beneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge, 17 miles south of Los Angeles, Brian Latta—a wildlife biologistwith the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group—creeps along a two-inch-wide steel lip. Soaring nearby, an angry peregrine falcon prepares to dive-bomb him as he approaches her nest of chicks.

Such are the occupational hazards of professional peregrine “salvage,” an ongoing effort to protect the offspring of one of America’s most threatened species. After more than 30 years on the brink of extinction, F. peregrinus anatum now seems to be not only surviving amidst humanity, but thriving—as growing numbers nest on man-made structures such as radio towers, bridges, and high-rise buildings. The falcon’s comeback would be a happy ending, except for the fact that 30 to 50 percent of chicks in urban nests are swept to their deaths by erratic crosswinds as they make their first attempts at flight.

To prevent this, Latta transports the chicks from high-mortality nests to captive breeding facilities across the state, where adult falcons care for the adoptees until they are old enough to fledge. Later, he releases the young peregrines at natural nesting sites in cliffs along the coast.

No surprise: Latta, 39, has become an expert climber. He logs dozens of hours a year strapped into a harness, inching up ventilation shafts to capture chicks and then dodging small rockslides as he “translocates” them to the wild. “I still get this ball of nausea beforehand,” he says. “But if you’re not scared, you’re just stupid.”

Cozying Up to the King of the Jungle

A crocodile biologist avoids becoming consumed by his work

HOW DO YOU SAFELY study Melanosuchus niger, an 18-foot-long black caiman that lives deep in the Amazonian rainforest? Brazilian biologist Ronis Da Silveira, 35, swears by five rules: Keep your hands in the boat; watch the tail; don’t follow tracks in the grass unless you’re prepared to find something; don’t talk unless you have to scream; and don’t go swimming—ever.

Carnivorous, cold-blooded, and primarily nocturnal, the black caiman is the largest predator in the Amazon and the largest crocodilian in the Western Hemisphere. It can weigh more than 600 pounds, live for a century, and is one of only a dozen or so species capable of preying on humans. And, thanks to a once-lucrative international skin trade, it’s also endangered; until recently, little was known about its life in the wild.

All of which explains why Da Silveira motors out onto Lake Mamirauá at 1 a.m. in his wooden skiff, hoping to catch the toothy reptile. When he spots one, he glides to within an arm’s reach, uses a bamboo pole to slip a noose around its neck, ties its jaws shut with string (“They can swing their heads like clubs,” he says, “and break your shins in half”), binds its legs, and starts taking measurements: weight, length, girth, and age. Then he releases the beast—carefully.

Despite 3,000 captures over 11 years, Da Silveira has suffered no injuries. “But my assistants are terrified,” he says.”They think I’m trying to capture the devil.”

Standing in the Fire

The neighbors are getting ready to blow their lids

AT 18,700 FEET ABOVE sea level, the air is thin, odorless, and ether-clear. A gnarled fin of rock and ice marks the crater lip and summit proper of Citlaltépetl, better known as Pico de Orizaba, North America’s third-highest peak and one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. A step to the north, the mountain slides away 2,000 vertical feet in a sheet of glacial ice. A step to the south, a vertical headwall drops off into Pico’s steaming crater a quarter-mile below.

For volcanologist Hugo Delgado Granados, the top of Mexico is where the research starts getting good. At 42, he has spent the better part of 20 years collecting data on the country’s three highest volcanoes—Pico, 17,343-foot Iztaccíhuatl, and 17,887-foot Popocatépetl—a mission he describes as equal parts science and humanitarianism. Popo is located just 45 miles southeast of Mexico City and, in the event of a massive eruption, could blanket more than 400,000 people with deadly mudflows and pyroclastic avalanches of gas and debris. Since its last eruption in December 1994, Popo’s crater has been boiling with magma, and the summit glacier has been shrinking by the day.

With any luck, Delgado’s research will eventually insure that if “the big one” hits, no one will be in the way. When he can enlist a willing pilot, he helicopters onto the ash-strewn rims or flies planes through smoke plumes to measure temperatures and gather gas samples; on foot, he rappels 400 feet into craters and crevasses. In two decades of work, he’s been rocked by seismic shock waves, temporarily blinded by ashfall, and choked by sulfurous smoke.

So when will Popo blow? Delgado shakes his head. “All the data tell us for sure is that Popo has much more to say.”

Peter Lane Taylor’s first book, Science at the Extreme, will be published this month by McGraw-Hill.