Siberia 2008
 

July 25

We’re in Krasnoyarsk now—no longer in the wilderness and no longer above the Arctic Circle. This is the third largest city in Siberia, with a population of just over 900,000. To put that in perspective, that’s a bit less than the size of the caribou herd in the Taymyrskiy Region.

It’s nice to have the amenities that civilization brings, especially being free to make a phone call or hook up to internet without hanging off the side of a mountain! But there is an adjustment to be made. After our time out camping, I’m finding it hard to get used to a real bed. The first night it felt good to snuggle into a mattress—but I woke up with every muscle in my body aching. I guess my body liked hard rocks better!

read the final post Photograph of Ross Nelson, Guoqing Sun, and Paul Montesano holding reindeer antlers.

Photographs

In the cold Siberian climate, trees reproduce slowly. These larch cones document three years of growth. The lightest, reddish cones in the foreground are this year’s cones, which are forming and have not yet released their seeds. The medium-brown cones are from last year’s growth. The darkest brown cones are fully open and spent, yet still hang tenaciously on the tree. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

view expedition photographs

July 18–20

The time is rushing by like lightning. We stay so busy, and the experience is so intense that I can’t believe this year’s trip is almost over. It seems like we just began a day or two ago. But when I think about my home, my friends, and my family, it seems like forever that I’ve been gone. On the river it seems almost as if that life is just a dream. But the fact is we’re done with the river. And I’m only a half-a-world and four days away from my home.

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July 18–20

It’s midnight at the oasis here. I’m in my tent, surrounded by a hoard of mosquitoes all waiting for a drink. Lucky for me they are all outside, so they will have to stay thirsty.

This was a travel day [July 20]. Even though we have to tear down and set up the entire camp, we consider travel days “easy” days, because we do get to sit down for a few hours while we’re in the boats. We needed to find a large, flat site for tonight because this will be our last camp. Two days from now we will have a helicopter come pick us up from here.

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July 16–17

This part of Siberia is incredibly beautiful. We’re traveling into the Siberian Traps, ancient basaltic mountains. These mountains add tremendous scenic value to the trip. But they also add a lot of serious challenges to our work.

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July 15

It was an interesting day here. The morning started bright and beautiful, with no rain, no clouds. I went out with the Guoqing, Paul, and Ross to take measurements of the GLAS footprints nearby, which were across the river and on a mountain.

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July 12–14

Since our last entry, we’ve broken camp twice and spent one day working in the woods on our various studies. It’s been an intensely busy time, but not without some unexpected pleasures. Our last camp was a real treat. We chose the site for its proximity to our research areas, but were pleased to find a little wooded area, up an embankment next to the river, with the ground carpeted by moss and lichens. Not many bare rocks at all! It was soft! What a great night’s rest.

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July 11

It’s been quite an interesting day. It started with a bit of excitement. For some reason I woke up around 5 a.m., curious to take a look outside. What I saw was alarming: the river we camped beside had begun to rise rapidly. It looked like some of our things were about to be swept away.

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July 10

The expedition team woke in Khatanga, a thriving outpost in the Taymirskiy Region of Siberia. This selo (village) of about 3,500 people is truly at the top of the world. It is the planet’s fourth most northern settlement with a population of 1,000 or more.

The morning was cloudy and cool, with a steady rain. Undaunted, the team loaded their belongings into a large M-8 helicopter, squeezed themselves inside, and went looking for campsites far into the mountains, along the Kotuykan River. At a wide beach, the helicopter touched down briefly, giving them just enough time to toss their gear onto the stony shore. It departed in a swirl of sound and wind.

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Introduction

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).

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Biographies

Dr. Jon Ranson is an earth scientist specializing in radar and remote sensing. He uses these tools for studying of vegetation type and amount (biomass) in ecosystem research. He serves as the Head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Biospheric Sciences Branch in Greenbelt, Maryland. Under his guidance, the Branch is advancing the use of satellite technology to study the carbon cycle and ecosystem science. Dr. Ranson is currently Principal Investigator of a project to utilize various types of satellite data for mapping forest type and biomass along the tundra-forest interface in the Arctic.

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Expedition Map

Starting July 10, 2008, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Russia’s Institute of Forests will start a raft trip down Kotuykan River, in a remote and harsh section of northernmost central Siberia. Along the way, the team will make observations and gather data that will help advance studies of the impact of climate change on Arctic ecosystems. NASA Ecologist Jon Ranson will be calling in field reports via satellite phone during the 15-day expedition, and the Earth Observatory will be hosting them in a blog. This map tracks the team’s progress.

view map
 
  Siberia 2008
  By Joanne Howl July 9
 

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.

 
  Satellite image of fires in eastern Siberia.
 

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.

 

Widespread fires fill the skies of eastern Siberia with smoke on June 30, 2008. (NASA image courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team.)

  Photograph of moose skull in Siberia.
 

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.

 

When scientists are on expedition they are open to discoveries of many kinds. This moose skull was found by Dr. Jon Ranson on the Kochechum River on the Siberian expedition of 2007. This year the scientists will travel farther north, along the Kotuykan and Kotuy Rivers, in a region where Wooly Mammoth once lived. Native people have often used animals as symbols. To many peoples, the moose stands for being headstrong, unstoppable—a perfect mascot for the scientists on this expedition. (Photograph courtesy Jon Ranson, NASA GSFC.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 25

From Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia 09:10 PM USZ6S (09:10 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Krasnoyark
  • Clear, sunny
  • High: 72 degree F
  • Low: 52 degrees F
  • Humidity: 68%
  • Pressure: 30.1 in Hg
  • Wind: 4 mph variable

From Dr. Ranson

We’re in Krasnoyarsk now—no longer in the wilderness and no longer above the Arctic Circle. This is the third largest city in Siberia, with a population of just over 900,000. To put that in perspective, that’s a bit less than the size of the caribou herd in the Taymyrskiy Region.

It’s nice to have the amenities that civilization brings, especially being free to make a phone call or hook up to internet without hanging off the side of a mountain! But there is an adjustment to be made. After our time out camping, I’m finding it hard to get used to a real bed. The first night it felt good to snuggle into a mattress—but I woke up with every muscle in my body aching. I guess my body liked hard rocks better!

I watched television last night for the first times in weeks. I came across an American comedy show: “Scrubs”! It was like finding an old friend. It was all dubbed in Russian, of course, so I couldn’t understand a word. But it was hysterical, anyway. The voices of the characters were priceless—to hear Ted, the sad-sack attorney, speaking in a high-pitched Russian whine was just too funny! I guess comedy needs little translation.

Today we’ll work at the Sukachev Institute of Forests. I’ll have a chance to look at some data and to do some work on a scientific paper with Dr. Kharuk. Then it will be early to bed, and very, very early to rise. Tomorrow, Saturday, we’ll begin our journey home. We’ll arrive at our home airport on Saturday night. No, that’s not just a few hours flight, as it seems. We lose twelve hours coming home, so it’s 26 hours of travel.

This has been an exhausting but rewarding science adventure. The whole team worked very well together, with the Russians and Americans helping each other and enjoying each other’s company. The two new members of the team, Ross and Muhktar, became good friends during the two weeks on the river.

When we come to the field we work intensely to gather a lot of very valuable data. From space we can gather a huge amount of data to review, but there is always a question of how accurate that data may be under these extreme conditions. In the field we can touch and measure only a relatively small amount of forest, but it’s essential work. This is how we learn to better understand and use our satellites and models—and learn how to improve the instruments, too.

As we explored this extremely harsh northern land, I was once again impressed with how hardy and tenacious life is. Just about everywhere something could grow, it did. The summer is so very short, but in that time life just explodes; there were flowers and greenery everywhere.

We saw the effect of this harsh climate on the form and growth of the forest. We saw trees that had been killed yet would not decompose, due to the extreme cold. We saw trees that had been injured but refused to die, sending up new shoots from old stumps. We saw trees with vigorous, upright growth due to the recent warm conditions next to bent and ancient trees that have grown in harsher, colder times. And we saw trees growing above the traditional tree line—more northerly and at higher elevations than the recent range of the species. We saw effects of the cooling during the so-called Little Ice Age and warming from recent times. Through it all, the Larch forest retreats and advances. In the area we studied, it appears that the forest has now expanded beyond earlier recorded limits.

 
  Photograph of of dead larch trees in Siberia.
 

You know, it is really so very, very essential that this ground work gets done. Not just for my own studies or for the studies of the members of this expedition. But there is so much to learn, so much that is critical to life on Earth—to our lives and to the lives of generations to come.

There is always a need for more data and better data. There is a critical need for more people to get into science and do this type of work. Our team is small and we touch only a small bit of forest here. There is so much more to do.

I’d really like to emphasize, especially to the younger folks, that science is a living, exciting, and important career. Yes, scientists spend a lot of time working with papers and mathematics and meetings in conference rooms. Yeah, if you want to do science, you’ve got to study hard and make the grade. It’s hard work.

But, for those willing to do it, science offers true adventure—both intellectually and hands-on. You can explore anything you want, anywhere in the world—or in the universe. And your results can be extremely important. Scientists commonly uncover information that helps us change the way we think about the world. From time to time, scientists have uncovered information that has changed the world.

 

The harsh climate of Siberia is a challenging one for Larch trees. The photo shows the fates of several trees. A tree without bark or branches leans across the center of the photo. This tree died centuries ago, but the frigid climate has kept it from decaying. In the foreground, a tree that broke at the trunk and toppled managed to survive: a side branch grew into a vigorous new tree. In front and to the right of the “reborn” tree is a small dead tree that still has branches and bark. It is an ancient tree that died recently. In its last years, it put energy into making seed. Pinecones from the previous two years still cling to its branches. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of Ross Nelson, Guoqing Sun, and Paul Montesano holding reindeer antlers.
 

I’ve been asked if I’m coming back to Siberia again next year. Right now, I don’t know. We sometimes joke that science expeditions must be sort of like giving birth. I’ve been told that after such an intense experience that many women swear, right there in the delivery room, that they are done, forever. But then, soon, they’re fantasizing about another new baby.

Right now I’m tired; it’s been intense and exhausting. Right now I’m focused on getting home and attending to the new data we’ve gathered. Right now I just can’t imagine going back to that river again. But give me a few months. Or a few weeks. I’ll make a bet that I’ll be looking over maps and planning the next trip to Siberia before too long.

 

Ross Nelson, Guoqing Sun, and Paul Montesano holding reindeer antlers. They found these antlers on the tundra at the top of a mountain, carried them all day, then brought them back to camp strapped on the bow of the boat. To many Russians, the reindeer is a symbol for wanderers, or nomads—a meaningful souvenir for these three scientists, who have wandered a half-world away from their homes in search of knowledge. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

Thursday, July 10

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 8:15 PM USZ6S (8:15 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Overcast/Rain
  • High: 63 degrees F
  • Low: 49 degrees F
  • Humidity: 93 percent
  • Pressure: 29.7
  • Wind: 13 MPH NNE
  • Gusts: 20 MPH

The expedition team woke in Khatanga, a thriving outpost in the Taymirskiy Region of Siberia. This selo (village) of about 3,500 people is truly at the top of the world. It is the planet’s fourth most northern settlement with a population of 1,000 or more.

The morning was cloudy and cool, with a steady rain. Undaunted, the team loaded their belongings into a large M-8 helicopter, squeezed themselves inside, and went looking for campsites far into the mountains, along the Kotuykan River. At a wide beach, the helicopter touched down briefly, giving them just enough time to toss their gear onto the stony shore. It departed in a swirl of sound and wind.

 
  Photograph of helicopter and gear, Kotuykan River, Siberia.
 

The scientists worked hard to set up camp, inflate their boats, and settle into the wilderness. The stark beauty of the river, the forest, and the sky competed with the gentle silence to reminder them just how far away they are from the domain of humans.

From Dr. Ranson

Our trip from the United States to Khatanga went very smoothly. There were few delays. All the bags arrived with their respective owners, on time. Our equipment got through customs without comment. Everybody met as we planned, and everyone arrived on time and healthy.

Maybe things were going too well. I guess we needed a little excitement—and we got it today.

Last year we’d loaded the helicopter down pretty heavily with our gear. This year we had two more people and plenty of extra gear to support them, plus we added some heavy “comfort” items, like a generator. We were pretty certain we would not be overweight, but we knew we’d have little room to spare.

As we were stowing our gear aboard the helicopter, four Russians appeared. They said very little, but threw a bunch of their own gear onboard, then climbed in along side us. Somehow everyone got squeezed inside and the pilot took off. When we landed, the four hurriedly inflated a boat, grabbed their gear and took off downriver without a backwards glance.

As we checked through our equipment, Slava explained that there was a custom for locals to catch rides when they could. Apparently these were Siberian “good old boys,” out for a week of fishing. As he talked, we slowly realized that we were missing a bag—a bag that contained truly vital equipment, including our GPS. We figured it must have gone downriver with the fisherman!

They’d been gone for quite a little while by the time we’d made our discovery. All hands scurried to get one boat inflated. As we launched the craft onto the river, Mukhtar leapt in and sped off as quickly as the motor could take him, hoping to catch up with the fishermen. Fortunately, their boat did not have a motor, so he was able to catch the group, retrieve the wayward bag and return everything back to camp safely.

It was such an odd experience. We have traveled so far and gone to such great expense to get to this truly remote area of the world. We expected to be completely alone. We certainly never expected to have locals vacationing with us! I guess it is a reminder that, no matter where you travel nor how remote the region, you are always in someone’s back yard.

It is fantastic to be here. Everyone is healthy and excited to get started. We’ve set up camp on the beach next to this beautiful river. It’s just across the river from several dozen GLAS footprints, so we are perfectly situated. [One of the expedition’s objectives is to collect ground-truth data for comparing with satellite data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System, or GLAS]. The only hitch is that beaches in this region are stony—no sand at all. Our campsite is filled with stones ranging in size from a marble to a microwave, all mixed together.

 

In steady rain, a Russian M-8 helicopter drops the scientists off on the banks of the Kotuykan River in northern Siberia. In the foreground, scientists cover gear with plastic. This is the first campsite of the expedition, and it will not be a soft one. The beach is covered with marble- to microwave-sized stones. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Group photgraph of Siberia 2008 Kotuykan River expedition.

We’ve gone fishing this afternoon. We’ve caught three nice fish. It would have been four, but mine slipped away from me as I was making my way back to shore. We’ve got about three pounds of meat and our Russian friends have made a large batch of fish soup. That’s basically the entire fish cut up into chunks and put into water with some flavorings then boiled over a campfire until it is declared done. Fresh protein is hard to come by out in the Arctic wilderness, so it is a wholesome and healthy food.

We came to Siberia in August last year and spent most of our days in rain. That was predictable. August, the end of the summer, is known as the rainy season. It’s difficult to make measurements in heavy rain, so we planned to come earlier, in summer, so we could enjoy drier, warmer weather. But guess what. It’s raining. Not quite a downpour, but it’s steady. And it’s cool, too. Welcome to summer!

We have landed in a wonderful area for our studies. We are surrounded by forests. The trees are relatively small and far apart, but they have been extensively measured by the GLAS lidar. We know that instrument gives us fairly accurate information [about biomass] farther south, where the trees are larger. We also know that here, where the trees are small, that the measurements are fairly inaccurate. We are not sure why. So to be able to get into these forests, where we know we have difficulties, and make truly accurate measurements is a wonderful opportunity. I think this is going to be a very worthwhile expedition, with plenty of good data to bring home.

 

At their first campsite, the team assembles for a group photo in front of one of the not-yet-inflated rafts. Back row from left to right: Guoqing Sun, Mukhtar Naurzbaev, Slava Kharuk, Jon Ranson, Pasha Oskorbin, and Sergei Im. Front row from left to right: Ross Nelson, and Paul Montesano. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

Friday, July 11

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 8:05 PM USZ6S (8:05 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, Siberia
  • Morning rain and cloudy
  • High: 65 degrees F
  • Low: 50 degrees F

From Dr. Ranson

It’s been quite an interesting day. It started with a bit of excitement. For some reason I woke up around 5 a.m., curious to take a look outside. What I saw was alarming: the river we camped beside had begun to rise rapidly. It looked like some of our things were about to be swept away.

I began pulling some things inland, as I could. Soon Guoqing, always the early riser, came out of his tent and came to help. Before long we decided we’d better wake up the camp. Together we managed to pull everything up on land and to safety.

After a bit we left camp to make some measurements on the other side of the river. When we returned, around noon, the river had risen again. We estimated it had risen a full meter and a half (about 5 feet) since I woke up at 5 a.m.! It was rainy here last night, but not that rainy. There must have been really big rains upstream to make such a difference.

We thought the river was finished rising, but in the afternoon Slava and Mukhtar, whose studies kept them near the camp, saw it rising again. They had to stop their work to move our things and raise the camp even higher. Gosh, I’m really glad we didn’t come in the “rainy season” this year!

Today there’s not much rain, but it is cloudy and cool. It’s probably in the low fifties, but the wind feels cold in this damp weather. Despite the cool and the breeze, there are still enough mosquitoes to go around. Everyone has their share. We wear head nets and insect repellant and stay covered from head to toe. With that, they are tolerable.

It was a wonderful day for work. We were able complete a lot of GLAS plot measurements. What we do is go to the center of the GLAS footprint and outline a 10-meter circle within that footprint. [A satellite’s footprint is the total area it sees in a single image.] Then we measure every single tree we find within that circle. We do standard forestry measurements, such as diameter at breast height and height of the tree. We also note the species. Then we move out of the circle and measure the tallest trees outside the circle for additional information.

This year we are 3-4 degrees further north than last year. The elevation is different—lower—than last year, too. We are finding that this relatively small change in latitude and elevation makes a large difference in the forest. The trees are 10-20 cm in diameter but are pretty far apart. Compared to the sites we observed last year, there are about 1/4 of the number of trees in the same area here. Life is very harsh up here; there is no doubt about it.

 
  A photograph of wildfowers surrounding a rivulet in northern Siberia.
 

But life is also very vigorous and pervasive. Every bit of ground that can support life is covered. There is moss and lichen as well as these small trees. And there are flowers everywhere—flowers of every kind. We’re disappointed that there are no blueberries yet; they won’t be ready for a few more weeks. But it is a very beautiful time to be in Siberia.

 

Even though the climate above the Arctic Circle is extreme, life is vigorous and pervasive. In the six weeks of summer, plant life explodes. In addition to trees, the ground is covered by grasses, moss, lichens, and bright flowers. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 12-14

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 9:05 PM USZ6S (9:05 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • High: 62 degree F
  • Low: 49 degrees F
  • Humidity 87.4%
  • Pressure: 29.83 in Hg
  • Wind: 11.2 mph NE
  • Visibility >6.1 miles

From Dr. Ranson

Since our last entry, we’ve broken camp twice and spent one day working in the woods on our various studies. It’s been an intensely busy time, but not without some unexpected pleasures. Our last camp was a real treat. We chose the site for its proximity to our research areas, but were pleased to find a little wooded area, up an embankment next to the river, with the ground carpeted by moss and lichens. Not many bare rocks at all! It was soft! What a great night’s rest.

Because my tent was in the woods and on high ground, I stayed snug and dry, despite being awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of a hard rain. But a few folks had set their tents in the low land, by the side of the river. The runoff from the rain went down our hill and right into one of their tents, just like little fast-flowing streams. So not everyone had a good night’s sleep at that camp.

Tonight we will again camp on a rocky beach. At least the rocks are fairly small here; we’ll sleep okay. We have the river on one side and a small stream behind us, so it’s really like camping on a big a sandbar. Even though it’s drizzling again, we don’t think the river will rise much tonight.

 
  Photograph of Siberian expedition team members gutting fish.
 

Since we arrived, we’ve had no shortage of sites we can measure. We are traveling right through areas surveyed by the GLAS instrument in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Let me explain how this all works a bit more. GLAS is a lidar instrument aboard the ICESat satellite. [A lidar is like a radar, except it uses laser light instead of radio waves.] The satellite moves along in an orbit up above the Earth and GLAS fires a laser pulse to the Earth at specific intervals. The pulses hit the Earth about every 170 meters, and some of the energy is scattered back from the surface. GLAS measures the intensity of the return signal, which is called a waveform.

Like the beam of a flashlight, the laser pulse widens into a cone shape as it travels from space to the surface of the Earth. That means the area “illuminated” by the laser pulse—the GLAS footprint—is roughly circular. When we map the results, it’s just like a dotted line across the Earth, with each dot representing a footprint and the line representing the path of the orbit.

The return waveforms are affected not only by the height of the trees, but also the branches, the understory, the ground, and anything else that exists there. We can calculate tree height from the waveform data by subtracting the first return (tops of trees) from the last return (ground). We also use these waveforms to calculate biomass.

In some areas on Earth, our calculations match closely to what we measure when we are on the ground. But, when we look at the GLAS data from this particular region, what we see is waveforms that are characteristic of bare hillsides, not forest. Yet there is forest here. I see it with my own eyes, and we’re measuring it.

We hope that our ground-truth measurements will help us interpret the GLAS data we do have. We may then be able to interpret the data we have more accurately, so we may recognize these small forests. If not, we can certainly use the data we’re gathering to put into our models, so that in the future we can build an instrument that will measure these areas more accurately.

One of the issues may be that the measurements in this region are most often taken during the winter time. These trees, although conifers, lose their needles in the winter. Without the canopy on the trees, we may be losing a lot of return data, and this may well alter our ability to interpret whether we have sparse forest or bare hillside.

Today we’ve stopped at what appears to be the beginning of a canyon. There are a couple of pretty steep hills on each side of the river. We’re excited about this, because it gives the U.S. team an opportunity to make measurements on steeper slopes that we have seen this trip. And it gives the Russian team a great place to gather data on the effect of elevation on treelines. It’s a good spot, and we’ll work it hard tomorrow.

I should mention what an incredible group we have here. We all get along well and each person has so much talent. It’s always interesting when we have a chance to stop and talk together.

The newest Russian among us, Dr. Muhktar Naurzbaev, is an expert at dendrochronology. He dates the trees, of course, by looking at the tree rings: one ring equals one year’s growth. In good years, the rings are far apart, in tough years they are very close together. Because the climate is so extreme here, Muhktar must use a microscope to evaluate the width of the tree rings. Some of the rings are no more than 200 micrometers wide – just over the width of two human hairs. That represents how much the tree grew in an entire year! That’s so incredibly little! But the point is, they may have barely grown—but they did grow. The land is extreme, but life won’t quit.

These small trees here, in this tough land, can be very ancient indeed. Muhktar tells me that he has seen larch trees over 1,000 years old. The diameters are small, yes, but the trees have lived a very long time.

Yesterday we had a real treat. The sun came out for the afternoon! How wonderful to see that brilliant blue Arctic sky and feel the warmth of sunlight again! But the sunshine was short lived; it’s overcast again. At least we know the Sun is really up there trying to shine on us twenty-four hours each day. I’m sure we’ll see it again, soon.

 

Ross Nelson (right) and Gouqing Sun (left) clean and scale the day’s catch. Fish are the only fresh protein available to the expedition, so they eat it as frequently as possible. On this day, the scientists set out nets in the morning and returned, hungry from a hard day's work, to a good catch. Twenty-five fish went into soup and, for variety, some others were seasoned and fried over the campfire. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 15

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 9:30 PM USZ6S (9:30 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Overcast
  • High: 64 degree F
  • Low: 50 degrees F
  • Humidity 93.5%
  • Pressure: 29.68 in Hg
  • Wind: 8.9 mph NE
  • Visibility: >7 miles

From Dr. Ranson

It was an interesting day here. The morning started bright and beautiful, with no rain, no clouds. I went out with the Guoqing, Paul, and Ross to take measurements of the GLAS footprints nearby, which were across the river and on a mountain.

The mountain is typical for the region: the elevation gain isn’t huge, but the slope is fairly steep. These mountains, called the Siberian Traps, have flattened tops and are made of basalt. They were created from the eruption of volcanoes in the area about 250 million years ago. That timing coincides with the Permian extinction, when many forms of life died out. The basaltic flows at that time were huge. Some estimate they may have covered up one to four million square miles. It must have been a world-changing event. It certainly changed this part of Siberia, leaving these magnificent mountains behind. [The Permian-Triassic Extinction was the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history. Fossils suggest that between 90-96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all land species died out.]

 
  Photograph of Kotuykan River Expedition campsite and the steep mountainsides of the Siberian Traps.
 

There were several GLAS lines along the mountainside. We made a lot of measurements in the morning. The larch trees were all less than 10 meters tall. We actually saw a few willows, but none big enough to meet the criteria for measurements: they were so small they could be defined as “shrubs,” not trees.

After this successful start, we found a nice lunch spot near a cliff. We enjoyed the view as we ate our lunch of canned fish and crackers. We were in a great mood and enthusiastic for the rest of the day’s work.

As we made our first afternoon measurements, the sky darkened and a sudden thunderstorm moved in. So there we were, at the top of this mountain with thunder and lightening all around us. And the rain pouring down. What could we do? We just kept working.

Unfortunately, our inclinometer—an instrument used to measure height— fogged up from all the moisture and became unreadable. We continued to make the diameter measurements, anyway. We’ll be able to go back and calculate the heights later, so all is not completely lost, but we’d much prefer to have been able to make the actual measurements today. Right now our inclinometer is drying out. I expect by the time we make the next camp it will be as good as new.

Today the Russian team climbed another mountain, equally as steep as ours. There they took measurements and made observations for the study of the effects of elevation on tree growth. I had hoped that Slava would be available today to explain their work, but they are just now arriving back in camp. They have had a long day. Hopefully we’ll get him to discuss those studies in the days to come.

I should mention something we’ve seen here that is pretty interesting. The Russians call it a “tree in a skirt.” And, with just a little imagination, that’s what it looks like. I’ll send a picture along, because it’s hard to describe. Basically, the top of the tree is the typical sparse-needled shape of the larch as it grows in this extremely harsh climate. Then, lower down, is a lush green growth. The branches are so heavy with needles that they sag down towards the ground. So it looks like a thin woman wearing a heavy green skirt.

 

A view of the campsite taken from across the Kotuykan River. In the background are the flat-topped mountains known as the Siberian Traps. The slope in the foreground is littered with basaltic rocks formed from lava flows about 250 million years ago. The campsite was originally set up next to the riverbank. It is now on high ground; the river dropped about 2 meters overnight. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of a ‘tree in a skirt’ on a mountain in the Siberian Traps.

This happens because of the winter weather. When it snows, the bottom of the tree is covered up. This blanket of snow is actually very protective, keeping the lower branches safe. The part of the tree that sticks out of the snow is unprotected, so it is buffeted by the winds, which carry ice-crystals that can act like knives as they slice past the tree all winter long. It makes for an interesting-looking tree in summer! And also speaks to how incredibly harsh it is here in the winter time.

Our summer weather is fabulous, compared to that. It is just very changeable. When it is raining, it is chilly. When it is sunny, then it feels very hot, especially since we have to wear the bug suits and carry gear along with us. It just is very hard to predict, so we take what comes.

This campsite is beautiful tonight. The rains have cleared now. We can see downstream, where the river flows between more mountains. There is a fog rising up from the river between those mountains. A wonderful sight.

It also feels really nice, when you are tired, chilled, and soaking wet, to come back to camp and warm up by the fire. Yes, we are sleeping on rocks again, but I doubt any of us will complain much—we’re tired and should sleep well.

 

A photograph of a tree near the campsite shows a growth pattern that Siberians call a “tree in a skirt.” During Siberian winters, the bottom parts of trees can be covered by snow, which protects the branches from damaging winds. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 16–17

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 10:45 AM USZ6S (10:45 PM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Broken Clouds
  • High: 65 F
  • Low: 49 F
  • Humdity: 66.9%
  • Pressure: 29.94 in Hg
  • Visibility: >7 miles

From Dr. Ranson

This part of Siberia is incredibly beautiful. We’re traveling into the Siberian Traps, ancient basaltic mountains. These mountains add tremendous scenic value to the trip. But they also add a lot of serious challenges to our work.

Our new camp, where we set up on Tuesday, is right where a smaller tributary river flows into the Kotuykan. When we look downriver, we can see the Kotuykan flowing swiftly between the stark mountains. Larch trees grow well on the top of the mountains, so they appear green and soft. The sides of the mountains are a real contrast. They are dark and sheer, made up of crumbling rock. In some places, where the rock is more weather-resistant, there are formations that look like columns and fortresses that jut out of the side of the mountain.

The crumbling rock is evidence of the power of the weather, in particular the strength of the freeze-thaw cycle. I can see the top layer of the hardened basaltic lava and can also see where this basalt is breaking away. When the rock breaks off the mountain, it is sharp and jagged. That’s what’s on the crumbling hillsides and in tonight’s campsite of ours, too—pointed rocks. Eventually the rains will roll the rocks into the river, and then bigger rains will roll them along towards the sea, rubbing off some of the sharp edges as they go along. Eventually they will be rolled into the sea. As the mountains are worn away, the sea bottom slowly rises. These mountains are ancient, but the forces of nature are slowly, slowly, slowly taking them down and leveling the entire region.

Yesterday started out nice and dry—a pleasant thing, since we had to break camp and move downriver. Just as soon as we got into our boats and began to move, it just poured down on us. We had rain all day, until we prepared to pull to shore. Then the skies began to clear. As we set up our camp, I heard someone tell us to look downriver. A gorgeous, huge rainbow stretched over the river. With the green trees, the dark mountains, the blue river, and the clearing sky as background, the rainbow was an amazing thing to see.

 
  Photograph of a rainbow above the Kotuykan River, flanked by steep mountainsides.
 

It was nice to have a peaceful day yesterday, because today was much more exciting. From our maps, we knew that we’d have a tough time getting to our GLAS points to do our measurements today. There were a lot of points, but they were on a sheer-sided mountain. We spent a good deal of time discussing the best routes up the mountain and came up with one plan and two possible alternatives. We knew this was not going to be a stroll, but would be a real challenge. We were more right than we imagined!

As usual, our measurement sites were across the river from camp. We asked Mukhtar, who was staying to work with his colleagues on their studies in the mountains on the camp side of the river, to ferry us across. He took us where we asked: near the entry of a small, steep-sided canyon. We believed that near there the mountain’s edge would flatten enough to be safely climbable.

 

At the end of a long day’s journey downriver in the rain, the skies cleared just in time to set up camp. The appearance of a rainbow was a special treat for tired expedition members. The river is the Kotuykan, a day’s journey north of where it meets the larger Kotuy River. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of the raft used to ferry scientists from camp to their study sites across the Kotuykan River.
 

As we walked down the canyon, we came across a beautiful waterfall. But the walls didn’t really diminish. It was all steep and covered with loose, sharp, basaltic rock and debris. Eventually we found a spot that appeared to be passable, and we decided to climb it. It was, um, challenging and … well, it had some exciting spots, too.

It was a long scramble, with the rocks underfoot often sliding a few inches or more down the mountain as we climbed. It was hard to get forward motion. There was one spot where I was so very, very happy to feel my slow downward slide stop. Where I stopped was pretty close to an edge. Beyond the edge was about a twenty-foot drop off. Fortunately, no one needed to examine any drop-offs in a personal way. Although it was a tough climb, we all made it to the top just fine.

The rest of the day was spent relatively serenely, measuring plots and working down slope. It turned out that the hard climb was very worthwhile; we were able to measure about 15 plots today. We’re getting a lot of truly good data. I can’t wait to get back and begin to analyze what we’ve gathered.

We did have a little more excitement, because the mountainside was steep and loose near the river. At least we were heading down hill so the scramble wasn’t nearly as hard. But it turns out that we ended up about a mile and a half downriver from our rendezvous point. We elected Ross to walk upriver, find the boat and bring the ferry downriver to us. It’s such a joy, I’m sure, to be the newest man on an expedition—you get all the fun jobs.

Ross soon found Mukhtar patiently waiting and brought him to us. Soon we were back at our camp. It’s our home sweet home, where the stones are all jagged and range in size from ping pong balls to a couple of microwaves. But how wonderful to be back and get a chance to relax and have a meal.

And then—it began to rain.

 

The expedition’s camp is on the opposite side of the river from the study sites. The team uses the largest boat on the expedition, which has a 40-horsepower motor, to ferry people and gear. Paul Montesano and Guoqing Sun have just disembarked at their study site, while Mukhtar Naurzbaev prepares to return the boat to camp for the day. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 18–20

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 11:57 PM USZ6S (11:57 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Partly Cloudy
  • High: 68 degree F
  • Low: 50 degrees F
  • Humidity 63%
  • Pressure: 29.88 in Hg
  • Wind: 0
  • Visibility: 6 miles

From Dr. Ranson

It’s midnight at the oasis here. I’m in my tent, surrounded by a hoard of mosquitoes all waiting for a drink. Lucky for me they are all outside, so they will have to stay thirsty.

This was a travel day [July 20]. Even though we have to tear down and set up the entire camp, we consider travel days “easy” days, because we do get to sit down for a few hours while we’re in the boats. We needed to find a large, flat site for tonight because this will be our last camp. Two days from now we will have a helicopter come pick us up from here.

We found a good spot at the top of one of these flat-topped mountains. It’s a little climb from the river, where we are cooking, to the camp. But it’s worth it. The top of this mountain has been cut by the Kotuy River, so there’s a spectacular drop off—about 100 feet down—not too far from our camp. The rocks up here are covered with a bit of grass, so it should be comfortable sleeping.

We got into camp early, about 7 p.m. When we got here, Slava said there might be a good fishing spot nearby and thought we should try to catch something for dinner. The spot was good: Slava caught several really nice fish. And I hooked “Bubba.”

I hadn’t had much luck using the small silver spoons that had netted me so many fish upriver. So I broke out a “muskie-killer”—a lure with giant hooks and a greenish skirt. It was huge and new. A fish store near my home had suggested it; I figured just because it was so expensive!

Well, I tossed it about twice, then on the next cast I got a fantastic strike. It was clearly far too much fish for my 10 pound test line, but I managed to play it just fine for quite awhile. Then it leapt from the water and twisted sideways—what a huge fish! Slava thought so too; he said it must weigh about 20 pounds!

I guess the fish didn’t like the way we looked, because when it hit the water it took off straight downstream. My drag was whining as the line went out. I had been teetering on loose rocks on an embankment, while playing the fish, but now I needed to adjust my footing—and I slipped. The rod tip flipped up and I felt the line snap. My giant fish was gone.

Needless to say, I spoke some fine American slang, sitting there on the bank. Also needless to say, fisherman can’t walk away when they spot a Big One. There are rumors of truly giant fish—taimen over 100 pounds—in the Kotuy River, so mine might have actually been a “Small One!”So we fished until far too late, basking in the sunlight of the Siberian night. I didn’t come here to fish, so I can’t complain, but it would have been fun to have landed my Siberian “Bubba.”

Yesterday we worked in the field. Our measurement sites were at the top of a mountain but we were able to climb up the back side, so no big excitement, just steady going. We ate our standard sardine, cracker, and candy bar lunch perched on a cliff looking over the river. Just a wonderful sight. It’s interesting; we are seeing small patches of snow on the north side of the mountains. It’s too warm to snow on us, but too cold for all of the snow to have melted. It may stay here all summer.

 
  Photograph of cliffs above the Kotuy River.
 

We were able, at last, to go from the forest all the way upslope until we were in tundra. The forest trees became smaller and more sparse very quickly as we gained elevation. The tundra was interesting to see, no trees there, but we did see a lot of caribou skulls and antlers. Some of the guys thought these were fantastic—so fantastic that they carried them all day long and brought them into camp. I’m curious to see if they try to get them on the airplanes going home.

Slava has been working hard on several studies. Today was a really good day for him. I think he should have a chance to talk about his side of things.

From Dr. Slava Kharuk:

We were working today on looking at the effect of changes in climate on the growth of trees. We went up a mountain where there were very old, dead trees. These “fossil trees” are ancient. They died in the 13th or 14th century, in the time of the Little Ice Age. Before that, they were growing at the edge of their territory. They were maybe 200 – 400 years old (yet still very small from the hard climate) when the climate got too cold, and they died.

 

A nice spot for lunch, overlooking the Kotuy River. The mountains, the Siberian Traps, were formed from basaltic lava flows during massive eruptions about 250 million years ago. The freeze/thaw cycle cracks and crumbles the rocks. The weather and the river have eroded the mountains into spectacular formations and sheer drop-offs. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of fossil trees in Siberia.
 

These fossil trees don’t decompose because it is so cold here, but they have fallen over in the last few hundred years. All around them now are younger trees, green and tall. These young trees are evidence that the climate has warmed a lot, so that now conditions will allow trees to grow here again. The young trees are now growing further upslope than the old tree line. That means that this area is warmer now that it was in the warm time before the Little Ice Age.

The climate has changed many times in this area. Once, the climate was much warmer. There were trees growing all the way to the Arctic Sea. But then it got cold and those trees died off. Since then, there have been waves of warmth and waves of cold. Now we see warming that lets trees grow where they haven’t grown for a long, long time. If this warming continues, we may again see trees growing all the way to the Arctic Sea.

 

Forest ecologist Slava Kharuk called this a photo of Siberia’s “bones and flesh.” The “bones” are the skeletons of fossil trees that died prior to the extremely frigid climate of the Little Ice Age, during the 13th of 14th century. Although they died hundreds of years ago, the frigid climate has prevented them from decaying.

The “flesh” is the new trees that are colonizing the area as the climate warms. These trees are growing far above the “fossil” tree line, which is evidence that the current warming trend is very strong. Scientists will use data on the ages of both old and new trees—the bones and flesh—to create a timeline of climate change in this part of Siberia. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

July 21–22

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 09:05 PM USZ6S (09:05 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Few Clouds
  • High: 67 degree F
  • Low: 54 degrees F
  • Humidity 62%
  • Pressure: 30.1 in Hg
  • Wind: 13 mph NE
  • Visibility: >7 miles

From Dr. Ranson

The time is rushing by like lightning. We stay so busy, and the experience is so intense that I can’t believe this year’s trip is almost over. It seems like we just began a day or two ago. But when I think about my home, my friends, and my family, it seems like forever that I’ve been gone. On the river it seems almost as if that life is just a dream. But the fact is we’re done with the river. And I’m only a half-a-world and four days away from my home.

Yesterday was our last day in the forest. It was a pretty routine day, no special excitement. The weather was cooperative, and the mosquitoes a steady backdrop, just music to measure trees by. We went up the back of the mountain and worked down slope. The trees there were small and far apart. We made a ton of measurements so it was a highly successful, long day’s work.

Slava and his team worked the other side of the river. Today they took transects of trees for their fire-return studies. Fire has always been a part of life in the forest. The larch trees actually benefit from smaller fires. The larch resist the heat of fire that burns the underbrush, so a fire will allow the seeds more fertile ground with less competition. And it helps the cones to release their seeds, too. But large and extremely hot fires will damage and often kill larch—so fire is a mixed blessing to this forest.

From his prior work, it appears that fire is occurring much more frequently in recent years, possibly as a consequence of the warming of the region. It also appears that these fires are much larger than in the past, affecting and killing many more trees. To continue these studies, Dr. Kharuk’s team cuts slices across the tree and takes these discs back to the lab to analyze. If there has been a fire in the tree’s lifetime, it will leave a scar on the tree. Each fire leaves a different scar on a different growth ring. The collected transect of the tree not only can date the fires the tree has lived through, but they are also analyzed to study the effects of the climate on growth and the age of the trees in the forest. So one tree gives a wealth of information for many studies.

 
  Photograph of Slava Kharuk and Sergei Im holding transects (slices) of larch trees.
 

The last night in camp was quiet. And yes, fish was on the menu again. We eat a lot of fish here. We have fish soup, salted fish, fish over rice or pasta or over bulgur wheat. We’ve had fried fish, and we’ve had canned fish with crackers. For variety, we sometimes eat canned cow. There’s been canned beef over pasta, over rice or over bulgur wheat. And we get oatmeal for breakfast.

By this time last year, I was having cravings for borscht, and Paul was constantly reciting a mantra that sounded something like “pizza, pizza, pizza.” This year no one is complaining much, although Paul has just begun talking about craving some of his special, secret tacos. I guess we’re more satisfied with our diet this year. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s Pasha’s secret ingredient—ketchup. He uses a lot of it when he cooks for us.

 

Slava Kharuk (left) and Sergei Im (right) return to camp after a day collecting transects from Larch trees. Sergei is holding some of the transects, or cross-sections. Slava holds the chainsaw they used to collect them. These cross-sections will be studied in the laboratory at the Sukachev Institute of Forests. Each one will give the scientists a wealth of information: the age of the tree, climate conditions throughout its lifetime, dates of fires that left scars, and changes of growth rate in response to climate warming. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of Pasha Oskorbin using his secret ingredient to enhance a meal.
 

Early this morning we ate a fast breakfast then hurriedly broke down our tents and boats. We piled our gear near the edge of the flattened area we’d selected as the wilderness helipad. We waited next to our gear for what seemed to be a long time. In reality, the helicopter was only a couple of hours late—a long time when you are wondering if your ride is really going to show up, but not so long for a connection in the wilderness.

We were glad to hear it coming and watched it flying towards us. Then we watched it hover a bit—and fly on. A short while later it reappeared. I guess he wanted to survey the local conditions before landing.

The big MI-8 made a memorable arrival. We crouched down next to our gear, expecting some prop wash to blow on us. We sure got that and more! Apparently the pilot wanted to make it as easy on us to load up, because he came down within five feet of our pile. We ducked down very, very low as he came in over us! I knew I was safe, but it was a bit unnerving to hear the incredible sound and feel the roaring wind as this big chopper landed so close by.

Within in an hour we were loaded and a few more hours found us in Khatanga. It’s a small town, but it seems pretty big now, after coming out of the wilderness. We’ll spend two nights here, in a small house that we rented. It’s comfortable: no rocks under our beds tonight!

Even though we have soft beds, fresh food, and a roof to sleep under, there’s no mistaking that we are still in a different land. This evening I saw a load of caribou meat being trucked to market out of town. The carcasses had been skinned, beheaded, gutted, and frozen. They were piled in the back of a slat-sided, open truck. It was bizarre to see the legs sticking every which-way. Of course, the truck was not refrigerated, other than by natural means. Yes, it’s pretty cold here even now – in mid-summer – so I guess they take advantage of the weather. I’m sure it’s perfectly safe and edible meat. Still, I think I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end of that load of caribou!

Although we are in town, the adventure is not over. Nor is the science. Now, out of the wilderness, we will be able to discuss the data a bit and start to sort through what we’ve gathered. I’ll share some of that in the final entry.

 

Cooking for a team of hard-working scientists in the field is a challenge. Pasha Oskorbin, the primary camp cook, uses his secret ingredient to enhance a meal. He says, “There is nothing inedible on this expedition. There may just be too little ketchup.” The label is from an American company, with the brand name written in English. The rest of the label is in Russian Cyrillic: an appropriately international condiment for this American/Russian expedition. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Siberia 2008
 

Photographs

Comparison of young and old larch trees.

Forest ecologist Slava Kharuk called this a picture of tyranny and freedom. The trees are growing at the top of a mountain in the Siberian Traps. The climate at the location is near the limit of the coldest temperatures larch trees can tolerate. The smaller of the two trees in the foreground is many centuries older than the bigger tree.

Dr. Kharuk describes the tree on the right as living under the tyranny of colder climates of the past. It grew slowly: its form is twisted, its needles are sparse, the diameter is small, and it is not very tall. The younger tree has grown, he says, under the freedom of recent, milder climates. It is shooting up tall, straight, and full. It grows a relatively large amount each year, which results in a larger trunk diameter. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

 
  Photograph of larch cones.
 

In the cold Siberian climate, trees reproduce slowly. These larch cones document three years of growth. The lightest, reddish cones in the foreground are this year’s cones, which are forming and have not yet released their seeds. The medium-brown cones are from last year’s growth. The darkest brown cones are fully open and spent, yet still hang tenaciously on the tree. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

Photograph of Jon Ranson on a steep slope in the Siberian Traps.

Jon Ranson stands on the mountainside next to the Kotuykan River. To collect forest observations, the scientists had to work their way up and down mountains like this each day. The slopes were steep and covered with scree—piles of loose, broken rock. Because satellite signals for phone and Internet communication can be elusive, Dr. Ranson carried his equipment—camera, computer, satellite phone, and data terminal—wherever he went.

Because the equipment is so bulky and heavy, and because he carried it endlessly, Dr. Kharuk began calling him “Sisyphus,” in honor of the mythological king who was punished by the gods by with a curse. Each day, for eternity, Sisyphus had to roll a big boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again. Dr. Ranson’s efforts however, had a reward; it made all communication from the field possible. (Photograph courtesy Jon Ranson.)

   
  Photograph of siberian pines growing on an outcrop.
 

On July 18, the scientists spotted Siberian Pines growing on the top of a rock column next to the Kotuykan River. Most of the trees in the photo are light-colored Larch, with a wide-based, triangular form. But in the foreground, at least three columnar, dark-green Siberian Pines can be seen near the edge of the outcrop.

This region has been considered too far north and the climate too harsh for the growth of Siberian Pine, traditionally a more southern species. The outcrop may have provided an unusually warm microclimate, or the long-term warming trend in the region may be permitting the northward migration of this warmer-weather. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

   
  Photograph of cliffs and a talus slope in the Siberian Traps.
 

The Siberian Traps Mountains were created about 250 million years ago by massive volcanic eruptions. The lava was basaltic and covered the land, forming flat plains as it cooled. Over the millennia, weathering has caused the basalt to crack and wear, forming flat-topped mountains known as the Siberian Traps. Some rock resists the weathering, creating spires and columns of rock. As rock falls from the mountaintop, it accumulates at the base as piles of loose debris. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

   
  Photograph of siberian tundra and reindeer antlers.
 

At the top of the tallest mountains, the boreal forest or taiga, gives way to the tundra, relatively barren, grassy plains. It is the tundra that provides food for the reindeer (caribou) herds. The Taymir region is home to the largest wild reindeer herd on Earth, with an estimated one million animals. They migrate northward in the early spring, following the emerging plants, then return southward in the fall to overwinter in slightly warmer climates. Reindeer antlers are visible in the foreground and are scattered over the tundra. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

Photograph of Mukhtar Naurzbaev and fish.

Mukhtar Naurzbaev set up nets at the confluence of the Kotuy and Kotuykan Rivers on July 19. By evening, he caught five fish: about thirty pounds of meat for dinner and a few meals to come. He has placed a book of matches on one fish as a reference for size. In Arctic summer, the sun never sets. This photo was taken at late evening in the land of the midnight sun. The caribou antlers behind Dr. Naurzbaev were found at the top of the mountain across the river, in open tundra, and carried back to camp. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

   
 
  Siberia 2008
 

Biographies

 
Photograph of Jon Ranson

Dr. Jon Ranson is an earth scientist specializing in radar and remote sensing. He uses these tools for studying of vegetation type and amount (biomass) in ecosystem research. He serves as the Head of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Biospheric Sciences Branch in Greenbelt, Maryland. Under his guidance, the Branch is advancing the use of satellite technology to study the carbon cycle and ecosystem science. Dr. Ranson is currently Principal Investigator of a project to utilize various types of satellite data for mapping forest type and biomass along the tundra-forest interface in the Arctic. He has twice served as acting Program Manager at NASA Headquarters and served as the Terra Project Scientist for five years. Dr. Ranson enjoys music and outdoor activities including hiking, birding, fishing, and camping in the wilderness.

Dr. Guoqing Sun

Dr. Guoqing Sun is a research professor at the University of Maryland College Park and is also affiliated with NASA GSFC’s Biospheric Sciences Branch. He is an expert in satellite data processing and analysis, remote-sensing modeling, land-cover use change, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). His specialty is developing and using remote-sensing models for forest canopies and sensor data fusion (combining lidar, radar and passive optical sensors.). Dr. Sun has contributed to several NASA projects dealing with land cover mapping in northeast China and has collaborated on NASA GSFC Siberian research projects. He was also a Principal Investigator for a Shuttle Radar Topographic Mapping project in Siberia.

Dr. Paul Monesanto

Paul Montesano specializes in the use of remote sensing and geospatial tools primarily for identifying and monitoring terrestrial changes. He received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University in Geography and his master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Environmental Monitoring. While at the Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers and at the Environmental Remote Sensing Center at UW-Madison, his research dealt with large-scale (state-level) habitat and resource assessments including delineation of ephemeral wetlands, mapping estuary habitats, and satellite estimates of inland-lake water quality. His work in the NASA GSFC Biospheric Sciences Branch has focused on regional- and continental-scale mapping of the northern boreal forests. In 2007,Paul’s rookie year with NASA, he took part in the successful Siberian expedition on the Kochechum River. On that expedition, he learned that Siberian blueberries are better than those from New Jersey and that, though plentiful in August, they are easily outnumbered by the mosquitoes surrounding camp. He also discovered that fish boiled in a bucket can be consumed both for dinner and then again the following morning, and that Larch forests hold many fascinating secrets.

Photograph of Ross Nelson.

Dr. Ross Nelson is a physical scientist who works for the Biospheric Sciences Branch of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He completed his B.S in Forestry at the University of Maine, Orono, his Master’s in Forestry/Remote Sensing at Purdue University and earned his Ph.D. in Forestry/ Biometrics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University He has several areas of research. One important area is the use of airborne laser data to characterize the forest canopy and estimate forest biomass, volume, and carbon. He is also working to use moderate and high-resolution satellite data to monitor tropical and subtropical forest conversion. Dr. Nelson is also developing statistical and image-processing procedures for continental and sub-continental resource assessment using satellite imagery. In 2003, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, then Mayor of Baltimore, presented a Community Service Award to Ross, in honor of his thousands of hours of volunteer service as a paramedic for Laurel Fire and Rescue.

Slava Kharuk

Dr. Slava Kharuk, a forest ecologist, is Head of the Biological Laboratory of the V.N. Sukachev Insititute of Forests, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. He has collaborated on several NASA- supported projects including projects in Maine, Canada and Siberia with Dr. Ranson and other NASA and USDA Forest Service scientists over the past several years. Dr. Kharuk leads the field and remote-sensing data activities at the Sukachev Institute and collaborates in data analysis research at NASA GSFC.

Sergie Im

Dr. Sergei Im is a scientist at the V. N. Sukachev Institute of Forests, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. He completed his undergraduate studies at Krasnoyarsk University in 2001 and did his post-graduate studies at the V. N. Sukachev Institute. In 2004, he successfully defended his thesis, “Microwave and optical remote sensing in investigations.” He is author and co-author of many scientific papers that have been published in Russian and international journals. His special interests are informatics such as GIS. Dr. Im is a skilled computer programmer in object-oriented C++ (Visual C++) (a software language). He has a particular interest in microwave and optical remote sensing for analysis of land cover dynamics.

Dr. Pasha Oskorbin

Pasha Oskorbin is a scientist at the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forests, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. He is a veteran of several field expeditions in the Siberian forest, working with field studies as well as logistics. This year, as in 2007, he holds a large part of the responsibility for planning for the needs of the scientists, purchasing food, tents, boats, and other items, and transporting these to the field. He is also the primary cook for the expedition.

Dr. Mukhtar Naurzbaev is a senior research associate in the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forests, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science. He did his undergraduate study at Ura Forestry as an engineer of forestry, and then earned his Ph.D. from the V.N. Sukachev Institute in 1998. He worked as a forestry officer, research officer, and a senior research associate in the State Natural Reserve of Taymjrsky. He then became senior research associate (1999) of the laboratory of dendroclimatology in the V.N. Sukachev Institute. Dr. Naurzbaev is head of the fieldwork expeditions in Taymjr and Indigirka river regions and, in the Institute of Forests, he is a supervisor of a scientific group engaged in the analysis of super-long-term tree-ring chronologies in the subarctic region of Central and Eastern Siberia. Dr. Naurzbaev has coordinated several large Russian projects as well as participated in different international programs supported by the International Association for the promotion of cooperation with scientists from the New Independent States (INTAS) and the National Science Foundation. He is author of 29 papers published in different International and Russian journals and has created the “Tree-Ring Siberian Data-Bank.” He has a particular interest in developing tree-ring standardization techniques and spectral analysis. Dr. Naurzbaev is new to this particular expedition group, but brings a wealth of experience in field studies in this remote and harsh region of Siberia.

 
  Siberia 2008: Kotuykan River Expedition
 
 

Starting July 10, 2008, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Russia’s Institute of Forests will start a raft trip down Kotuykan River, in a remote and harsh section of northernmost central Siberia. Along the way, the team will make observations and gather data that will help advance studies of the impact of climate change on Arctic ecosystems. NASA Ecologist Jon Ranson will be calling in field reports via satellite phone during the 15-day expedition, and the Earth Observatory will be hosting them in a blog. This map tracks the team’s progress.