To most people, the word Siberia evokes images of a frigid land of extreme cold. These days, to ecosystem scientists, Siberia is becoming synonymous with heat wave. Northern Siberia in particular is a climatic hot spot—an area that is warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the past 30 years, average temperatures across the region have risen 1-3 degrees Celsius (3-5 degrees Fahrenheit), while the worldwide average increase in that time is about 0.6 degrees C (1 degree F).
That’s not to say that it’s time to break out the beach blankets. The region remains fiercely cold. The average winter time low in Khatanga, a small village in Northern Siberia, is -34 degrees F and can drop to -63 degrees F. Yet the warming trend is so rapid here that scientists are curious to watch the effects on the land.
Even in extremely cold regions, a few degrees increase in temperature brings many changes. Some are obvious. It is easy to see the melting of the permafrost and the tilting of trees as they lose their firm, frozen footing; the rapid growth of previously stunted trees; and the encroachment of southern tree species northward.
Each obvious change is a red flag for a web of less obvious transformations. For example, as the permafrost melts, large areas of formerly frozen peat bog begin to decompose. Decomposition releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. As temperatures rise, fires appear to occur more often and burn larger areas, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. The release of carbon dioxide and methane can speed warming not just in Siberia, but in the entire world.
With such dramatic changes afoot, scientists from all over the world are now looking at Siberia. But some scientists, including Dr. Jon Ranson, Head of the Biospheric Sciences Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Dr. Slava Kharuk, Head of the Biological Laboratory of the Sukachev Institute of Forests, have been studying Siberian forests for decades.
Eighteen years ago Dr. Ranson and Dr. Kharuk committed to collaborate to study the remote forests of Siberia. These two scientists, working a half-world apart, have used remote-sensing tools as well as numerous expeditions to learn, document, and share a wealth of knowledge about this region. But they want to learn more.
Starting July 10, 2008, Dr. Ranson and Dr. Kharuk will lead a team of American and Russian scientists to study an extremely remote and harsh section of northernmost central Siberia. On that day, they plan to board a Russian MI 8 helicopter in Khatanga. They will fly above the Arctic Circle, find a flat spot near the headwaters of the Kotuykan River and make a rapid exit from the helicopter. They will then inflate three rubber boats, pack them with survival gear, scientific instruments, and eight strong scientists. For the next fifteen days they will travel the river, stopping frequently to make observations and collect data in support of several ongoing studies.
The team expects to face hardships. They know, from prior experience, that the mosquitoes will swarm around them. They will eat food that has been canned or dried, supplement by fish from the river and—maybe—berries from the woods. They expect to find fast water and risky rapids on this river. They will set up tents on rocky shores. If they crave a cup of coffee or a warm meal, they will build a campfire. And, although it is summer in Siberia, there is still the possibility of damp snow flurries. This is no walk in the park, but these scientists worry about gathering accurate data, not hardship.
The team will gather a tremendous amount of data. They will pull the boats ashore at sites that are in the field of view of various satellite sensors to provide “ground truth” for space-based measurements. They will unpack standard forestry equipment (diameter tapes, 50-meter tapes, and laser angle finder devices) to take measurements to validate the satellites’ observations. The team will also collect samples to be used in fire-return studies and locate the taiga/tundra ecotone—the place where the forest (taiga) gives way to the more barren arctic plains (tundra).
To keep a life-line to the outside world, the team carries two satellite phones. If all goes well, Dr. Ranson will contact us daily to share his discoveries and challenges. But this expedition is truly remote: much of the travel lies on the outer edge of satellite coverage. There is no guarantee that the team will be able connect in any way to the outside world, either to share their story or to call for aide if they need it.
What will these scientists discover? What challenges await them? If you are curious to experience a scientific expedition, in near-real time, check this site often. We’ll keep you as up to date as the satellites allow.