Siberia 2012: The Forest Holds Secrets

July 12th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Embenchime River  66  N  97 E

9:15 a.m. local, 9:15 p.m. EDT

72°F high   54°F low 

Dr. Ranson reports:

It’s been been a very physical day, with a lot of walking and a lot of work, but we’re doing great and gathering a lot of high quality data.  The weather was perfect for a day in the field.  The sun popped in and out of the clouds all day long, but no rain.

Right now I’m finishing up my work day by placing a phone call to our correspondent-from-home, Joanne.  At the end of each day, I tell her our day’s story; she edits it, and then posts it in this blog. Tonight I’m sitting on this big rock on the Embenchime beach, with the late evening sun peeking through clouds and beautiful scenery all around.   There’s a nice little breeze, so the mosquitoes are leaving me alone – more or less.  Just down river, Ross is chopping wood for our campfire.  This correspondent duty has its perks.

One of the major duties today was putting the boats together, and testing them to make sure they are seaworthy. In the morning the team will break camp, fill the boats, and head downriver. They have many measurements and observations to make, and many miles to travel. It is time to move on.

It also has its frustrations.  We’ve been struggling with the data terminal.  The first day out, it would not work at all, despite the fact it appeared just fine.  It turns out that we failed to have the proper permissions from Russia to use the data terminal. That got straightened out, and the terminal started working – for a few hours.  Now it is in and out, and it makes no sense to me why. Hopefully the company we are renting from can help get it working.  Otherwise, I have no ability to send photos from the field.

Gouqing, Pasha and I made the GLAS footprint measurements today.  We worked a single line, heading away from camp.   We were able to complete ten plots.  Now remember, there are 172 meters between GLAS footprints.   We followed the footprint trail, kind of like following a trail of breadcrumbs, deep into the forest.  At the end of the day, we found ourselves really far away from camp.

If you are quick with math, you’ve probably already multiplied 172 by 10, then converted the kilometers to miles, and figured out that we were about a mile into the forest.   That doesn’t sound so bad.  At home, that’s fifteen to twenty minutes.  But this is a very different kind of walk. Terrain around here really makes you work for each step.  We’d passed through some pretty rough country coming in … GLAS plots are laid out because the satellite passes above the area, not because it’s nice easy hiking trail.  We thought we’d avoid some of the rough stuff, so went cross-country.  That made it more like a two-mile walk back.

The upland forests are dry and open, and you can make pretty good time on that footing.  But then you get into pillow moss and lichens, where it’s so thick and pillow-like underfoot that walking gets really difficult.  It’s like walking on a waterbed.  It would be great to sleep on that stuff, but when you stand upright, your feet just sink in and you have to work to keep your balance.  Then you move into grassier sedges, where there are humps and water-filled holes.  Here you must watch carefully and stretch in order to step only on the humps, because the holes are wet and sometimes deep. Then there are the rocky beaches where you have to be careful, because although footing looks secure, the rocks teeter and totter and, if you step on the wrong one, it might roll away with you.  And then there are big clumps of willow and alder, which grow so thick and tall, that you have to physically push your way through.  And there are grassy banks that hide creeks that must be crossed, and there are hills to climb … well, you get the idea.  It’s tough work.  Siberia provides a workout not to be found in any gym.

While we were out making our measurements, Slava, Ross and Sergei worked on the boats, getting us ready for a full day of boating down-river tomorrow.  We have four rubber boats, and they are all in fine working order.

After building the boats, Sergei and Ross walked upriver, set up new plots near camp, and measured them.  They are not GLAS plots.  However, when we take the G-LiHT instrument to the field next year, we won’t be measuring only GLAS plots.  That instrument will be covering a much wider area, including the camp area where we stayed this year.  The new plots that Sergei and Ross set up and measured will be very important for our future work.

A stand of trees that appears to have been burned by fire at some time in the past. Many of the larger trees are darkened and do not seem robust. A group of younger trees, which appear to be of similar age, have grown up in between the older trees. Right next to such apparently burned stands were stand the same age as the older trees in this one, but they appeared untouched by fire.

Again, as we worked in the forest, we came across areas that appeared to have been burned.  The regeneration is pretty tall, so these are not new fires – they happened a long time ago.  Right next to the fire-scarred forests there were forests of similar age that appeared to be untouched by fire.  I kept wondering about that – why would a wildfire in the middle of the forest stop burning, all of a sudden?  There would be no intervention – no firefighters to appear to quench the fires.  One would think it would just burn until everything was gone.  But they didn’t do that here.   Why?

I was contemplating this question as I also tried to concentrate on placing my feet on the rapidly varying understory as we walked along.  The ground cover changes rapidly and dramatically. In one area you have wet, sedge-like material.  Very close by you have a soft area with blueberries or Betula nana (bog birch or dwarf birch).  Then, in just a little bit, you are in an area with very bright understory, and it is so dry that it you can hear it crunch under your boot with each step.

Given this ground cover variation, and the apparent stop-and-start nature of the fire scars, it seems plausible that the fires that ignite in the extremely dry understory could easily be stopped cold when ground cover changes suddenly.  Fire would feed on tinder dry, but couldn’t easily burn the bog.

Late in the afternoon Slava and Sergei went sample trees near camp for fire scars. They returned in a little while with 10 samples for the fire return studies.  They will take those samples back to the lab to analyze them for fire scars, as well as look at the growth history as told by the tree rings. Besides forest biomass and carbon, which are my primary interests, we also study fire return intervals.  In fact, we’ve had a paper published recently on fire return, and one in the process of publication now.

You know, this group of scientists really has a dynamic and symbiotic relationship.  We share interests, but we do have our own primary and diverse interests.  On an expedition, we gather a tremendous amount of data that allows study of a broad range of questions. We look at biomass and carbon, ecosystem dynamics, tree growth, fire return interval, ground truth for old remote sensing instruments, validation and calibration data for upcoming new instruments.  We look for a better understand of the forest structure, and look for data to help create better instruments and forest modeling systems.   We work hard to try to get the forest to reveal some of its many secrets.  The forest is sometimes stingy, but each expedition unveils another small golden piece of the whole puzzle.

Our plan for tomorrow is to pack up camp in the morning, load our fine watercraft to the hilt, then head down the Embenchime.  We have a long way to travel before we get home, and a lot of work to do between there and here.   Our goal is to reach the confluence of the Embenchime and the Kochechum by July 20, because we need a full two days to get from that point to Tura.  To make that happen, we will have to make some good time tomorrow on the river. By Saturday, we’ll be in the forest, gathering data, once again.

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Notes from the Field