The Scarred Forest

August 16th, 2010 by Joanne Howl
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Tomsk Oblast    57.83 N 86.7 E

12:00 midnight Siberian;  12:00 noon EST

 High: 55    Low:  43    Overcast

Oh my goodness, I’m exhausted tonight.   It’s late and it’s been a very long day.   It’s chilly tonight, too – the breeze off the water is cold here, in our camp by the river. I’ve already crawled into my sleeping bag, where it’s quite warm and cozy.  Stick a fork in me, I am done.   

This morning we climbed into The Pill and headed out to the study area, only about 30 km (18mi) away.  That’s a fraction of my morning commute back home, so I thought it would take just a few minutes.  But the road was full of ruts and potholes. It took us almost two hours to get to work.  It was worse coming home, too.  We happened upon some locals who had gotten stuck in a real deep pothole.  Mikal had a winch on The Pill, so we got them hauled out, but it made the commute take forever. 

The morning commute in the Siberia forest can be a challenge. The road was lined with potholes and ruts. The average speed was less than 9 miles per hour.

As we drove in, we saw a very diverse and robust forest.  Siberian fir, Siberian pine and aspen are abundant in the wetter spots.  Spruce and Scots pine thrive in the drier areas.   When we stopped, we noticed right away that the wet soil-species predominated in our work area, so it looked like a good idea to wear our rubber waders.   

The waders are heavy and hot, but they do keep feet dry, and wet feet in the forest can be miserable. We all elected to wear them, except for Marsha.  She is very experienced in this region and was confident she could pick dry paths through wetlands.  She did great most of the time.  But there was one very wet bog that was a challenge.  All us guys in our big boots sloshed right on through.  It was a little tiresome, but we got out dry. Marsha had to be much more methodical, picking her way from one tuft of vegetation to another.  We waited for her, and silently rooted for her to make it through.  In the end, though, she ended up getting her feet pretty wet a time or two. And no, none of us gentlemen offered to carry the damsel across the bog.  We’re scientists not knights.  In the forest, there is no chivalry.

Let me describe how we do our work.  To start, we have to find the right location, so we consult maps to locate a GLAS footprint within walking distance.  Using our GPS, we walk to the center of that footprint – which can be a challenge, depending on what is in our way.  Then we measure and mark the boundary of a 10 meter radius around the center, so we end up with a 20m diameter circle.  That’s our “plot”. 

Once the plot is marked, we split into teams of two.  One person will use a standard forestry diameter tape (measuring tape) and wrap it around the tree trunk at 4.5 feet (1.37 m) above the forest floor and measure the diameter of the tree.  That height from the ground is known as diameter breast height, or DBH.  Once you get used to it, it’s easy to repeat DBH without having to think about it.  And the other person has a clipboard and records the height of the tree, the species of the tree and makes other notations that may be relevant.   We measure the DBH of every tree in the plot.

We also need to measure three trees for height, and they need to be representative of the species in the plot.   That means that we pick trees of the predominant species – we wouldn’t measure the lone birch in a Scots Pine forest, for example. We’d pick a pine.   Then we choose one tree from each category of DBH – one tree with a low DBH, one with a medium DBH and one with a high DBH.  We’ll need a tree that is relatively tall, and one that we can see both the trunk and the top of the crown, so we can sight it with the hypsometer – the gadget that makes the measurements.   Once we sight the tree properly, the hypsometer gives us a reading, and we write that down, too.  That’s all there is to it.  Sounds easy, but after hundreds of trees in a plot, it gets a bit tiring.  Today we measured over 600 trees in our nine plots.

This old rutted road seems to draw a line between two different types of forest.   On the south side, the land is wet and the forests are rich in birch and aspen, with some Pine, Spruce and Fir mixed in, and moss covers the ground.   On the north side of the road, the soil is dry and the forest is almost exclusively Scots Pine, with lots of lichen on the floor. 

In the early 1950's, Siberian silkmoths devastated this forest, killing over a million hectares of trees in the Ket-Chulym region. The trees killed at that time are still in the forest. This tree, most likely a victim of silkmoth, has fallen over, exposing a very large and very bare root ball.

On the northern side of the road, we can tell that a big battle was oce waged here.  It was a case of human vs. fire, with the forest being the prize.  The most notable evidence is the remnants of very old firebreaks.   In order to control a forest fire, often it is necessary to clear a wide swath of all burnable material.  That’s a “firebreak”.  The idea is that when the fire reaches the break, it won’t have any more fuel and it will die.   To make a firebreak, they take a tractor with a big attachment and dig a wide trench.   And that’s what we see here – the earth is scarred with firebreak trenches.   

They must have fought the blazes a long time ago.  Some of the trenches have almost completely been filled with soil, and others have good sized trees growing from them.  We found these tracks all over the forest.  Firs t they go in one direction, then in another.  I don’t know when it happened, or who fought it, but it must have been a mighty battle.  There’s no hint of who won, either – the fire or the people.   Well, the forest has returned, so I guess, in the end, the forest won the war.

The forest was also scarred by an old invasion of the Siberian silkmoth.   This region suffered a very famous infestation back in the early 1950s, when about a million hectares of forest was destroyed by that insect.   The little white moth lays eggs on the conifers – Siberian Pine, Siberian Fir and Siberian Spruce are favorites – and the larvae will strip the host tree of needles, killing the tree.   That happened right here, and we see a lot of long-dead trees left standing, a lot of trees blown down and decaying, and a lot of “new” growth.  Of course, the new growth is about sixty years old.  It’s clear this forest has been under a great deal of stress from both fire and insects. 

Pasha and Slava had been minding the camp today.  We again returned to a burning campfire and warm food.  Tonight we ate fruit compote, made of dried fruits mixed with water and heated over the fire,  along with rice and a soup made out of meat, potatoes, onions and spices.   I put my rice in my soup, and it made a wonderful, filling meal.   

Tomorrow we will try to find a back way into Belyy Yar.  The direct road to that city is still impassible, and it looks like it will stay that way for a long time.  Slava has been searching for another route, and he tells me he’s found it.  I’m told to get some rest, because we’ll get up very early and, if it all works out, we’ll reach that area very late tomorrow night.  I hope it works out – we really do want the data from that area, if it’s at all possible.

One Response to “The Scarred Forest”

  1. jorge says:

    !!! Hola !!!, permitanme felisitarlos por tan magnifico trabajo y darles las gracias por ello. saludos.