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Siberia 2012: Fighting the Embenchime

July 13th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Embenchime River  66.15 N  97.57 E

73°F High 40°F Low        Periods of rain and strong wind

11:50 p.m. Siberia  11:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time

From Dr. Ranson:

It is near midnight, and we just got off the river.   I helped get us situated and safe, but then left the others so I could check in. Dinner is cooking, and it smells fantastic.  We don’t always eat regular meals here – but when we do get our supper, it is very welcome.

I realized just a few minutes ago that today is Friday the 13th.  In America it’s considered an unlucky date.  Many people might say, probably half-jokingly, that it is no time to travel or take risks.  Well, although I’m not superstitious, I have to admit that this was not the luckiest day to run the river.  No one is hurt, and there were no tragedies.  But we struggled with this river today.

The day started beautifully.  A bright, warm morning after a crisp, chill night.  We ate fried pike and bread for breakfast, then broke camp. We took down the tents, packed all the gear, and then loaded our three boats.  We don’t have excess gear – but you can’t say that we pack lightly.

Our goal for today was to reach the next camp, 39 kilometers down river.  That’s nearly 25 miles – a good day’s trip.  However, that was 39 kilometers “as the crow flies”.  Crows have the common sense to fly in a straight line  – but the Embenchime apparently has no sense.  It twists and turns all over the place.  Following the river, we had to travel around 60 km (37 mi) or more to reach the next camp.    We didn’t quite make it. We’re camping riverside at least 15 km short of plan.

The convoy of boats which carries the scientists down river. The boats travel tied together, one after another in a line. The lead boat is motorized. The second carries the gasoline, cargo and a passenger or two, and the rear boat carries cargo and passengers. Ross and Guoquing board the rear boat, while Slava and Pasha work on the ropes.

The long distance didn’t thwart us – it was the river depth.   The Embenchime is about 150 feet wide, and supposed to run 2-3 feet deep.  However, the water level is very low.  In many spots the rocks were just a few inches under water.   Sometimes we could motor along, but often – way too often – we had to get out and pull our boats over the rocky shallows.   When we get our weight out of the boat, the boat is lighter and floats higher.  With some luck and a lot of work, we were able to pass all of the riffles.

When we found deeper water, I thought it would be relatively restful.  But not today.  When we are under power, Slava and I sit in the lead boat, with all the rest of the boats tied together in a line.  We are like the mother duck, with our two ducklings following behind, one after another in a nice little row.  Unlike a mother duck, however, the lead boat is not very mobile.  The motor provides power, but under such weight it isn’t very effective at steering.  So the guy in the front of the boat – that’s me – gets to act like a human rudder, and steer the boat.  In deep water, sometimes this is just a pleasant ride with a little push here and there.  But on the shallow Embenchime, it was constant work – paddle left, paddle right, we have to hit that deep channel just right, and we have to miss those rocks!   It was quite a workout.

Not that I’m complaining – it’s just how it goes.  Slava provided all the steering the motor had in it, and we needed him to run that motor.  We all have our own work to do.  All I can say is… I’m sure I will sleep soundly tonight.

I’m definitely in a carb and calorie burning mode right now. We’re eating high protein fish dinners, with just a few carbs and a lot of exercise.  The Embenchime River Diet sure packs a punch!  That reminds me, though – Ross was back in the third boat today.  No frantic paddling for him.  After today, I think I have a leg up on our weight-loss challenge!

After we’d worked hard to free ourselves of the shallows, and were finally motoring forward relatively well, Slava and I noticed something disturbing.  Our boat was taking on water. We weren’t sinking, but we sure had a leak, no doubt from dragging the boat over the sharp rocks in the shallows. The lead boat carries gear that should stay as dry as possible, so we couldn’t keep going.  We pulled over, pulled the motor off our boat, and switched it to a sounder boat.  Our leaky boat became a cargo boat (most of the cargo can stand getting a bit wet) and after all of that, we were underway once more.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before we noticed water in this boat, too. It had also been damaged, and now was leaking. Once more, we had to switch boats, move the motor, move the cargo, and repack. We couldn’t take time to make repairs – we were too far behind schedule. That meant the cargo, as well as Ross, Pasha, Guoqing and Sergei, would have to ride wet today.

Luckily, we finally found a good spot to make camp tonight.  It’s a gravel bar on the river.  The stones are smaller in diameter her than our first camp, so I think it will be more comfortable sleeping.  The light is very soft right now.  The sun went down at 11:20 p.m.   It’s after midnight now, and I can still see the sun shining on the hills to the east.  Here, in camp, we are in dusky shade.  I don’t think it gets darker than this… and it is still light enough that I could read a newspaper. It’s the land of the almost-midnight sun.

Usually the days on the river are the days we can rest and regroup.  It’s a time to observe the forest biomes on the sides of the river.  And a day of contemplation, too – a time to think about what we’ve seen, what it all might mean.  Today, however, there was not much time for thinking, and not much time for observation.

In the quieter times, I was able to notice my surroundings.  For example, I found myself noting that my horde of mosquito friends was fairly thin.  Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of mosquitoes here, for sure.  But not the overwhelming thousands clinging to everything that I’ve come to expect in this region.

There continues to be more mammal life on this river than we’ve seen elsewhere, in years past.  Today we saw a cow and a calf peacefully sharing a long drink from the river.   An agitated bull moose pranced back and forth on the bank as we passed by – as if he didn’t know whether to hold his ground or run off into the woods.   While he was showing off, a beautiful eagle flew overhead.  It was very big, with a solid white tail.  I understand that there are several types of eagle that live in northern Siberia, including the White-tailed Eagle.  I suspect that is what this was, because it had a very huge wingspan, and the White-tailed Eagle not only has a white tail, but it is said to be the largest eagle in the world.

The forests are still all larch.  We see some areas that have been burned in the past and have lots of young trees, but no recent fires.  There are a few trees leaning here and there, and a few banks have collapsed.  These things happen when permafrost – the permanently frozen soil that lies a meter or so under the groundcover in Siberia – thaws.  We’ve seen a few small signs of random thawing, but nothing wide scale.

Yesterday I came across a few juniper plants near camp.  I picked a branch, and put it in my pocket.  Apparently some of the locals in Russia believe that burning the juniper and letting the smoke go through your vehicle gives safe travel.  We didn’t burn any this morning, but maybe we should have tried a little Russian superstition to be a counter to the American Friday the 13th superstition?  Maybe we can try tomorrow morning.

An very old antler, probably from an elk, lying in ground cover next to juniper. It is said in some parts of Siberia that burning juniper, and sending the smoke through the vehicles, helps make the journey safe. After the arduous day on the river today, the team may be tempted to try this ritual before departing on tomorrow’s river journey.

Ah, I was called to supper, and I had to pause.  I wasn’t about to miss out on this meal – it’s been a very, very long time since lunch. And will be a long time until breakfast.  In honor of the hard day’s work, we had canned beef with spaghetti noodles and tomato sauce.  Cow and carbs.  It was quite good, and I think we all feel better now.

It’s now after 1:00 a.m., July 14, here.  We’ve finished most of our work, and everyone has a few free minutes.  Ross has gone to his tent.  Guoqing is taking photos, and Slava is taking photos.  It’s a spectacular night for pictures. There is a wispy fog rising from the river, and the light is dim.  As the fog winds around the tents and trees, it appears quite striking.  I am relaxing and sharing today’s story, which is still work, but not too painful.  Sergei and Pasha – well, I guess they aren’t relaxing.  They are repairing the holes in the boats.

There is still work to do before I sleep, so I will sign off for now.  The plan tomorrow is to get up, repair the boats, then get downriver to the camp we’d planned to reach today. If we get in early, we can start our measurements. That is our goal.

At dinner we talked about the river – the challenges this river has given us today were amazing.  Slava says it took us 10 hours to travel 40 kilometers.  We need to speed it up.  We have about 440 kilometers left to reach Tura. At this rate, we might get there by Christmas!  The river should deepen tomorrow, and even more as we near the Kochechum.  It’s usually not so difficult.  However, this has been a very dry spring, following a very dry winter.  There has been almost no rain and little snow. Without snowmelt and without new rain, the rivers can’t help but run low.

Did I mention that we fought a strong storm that came up today?  It poured rain for a time, but no lightning, so we were safe on the river.  But the wind blew very, very hard from the south.  It overpowered our motors and actually pushed us upriver!  I think that was the worst moment of the entire trip. After struggling so hard to get downstream, to lose ground so quickly was frustrating.  The storm passed, and we made it to this camp, all in one piece. The Embenchine is relatively small, but she has gained our respect.

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.

GCPEx: GPM Cold-season Precipitation Experiment

January 20th, 2012 by Kevin Ward

GCPEx Logo

The GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) Cold-season Precipitation Experiment (GCPEx) will be conducted in cooperation with Environment Canada in Ontario, Canada from January 17th to February 29th, 2012. The overarching goal of GCPEx is to characterize the ability of multi-frequency active and passive microwave sensors to detect and estimate falling snow through the collection of microphysical property data, associated remote sensing observations, and coordinated model simulations of falling snow. Through collection of these unique datasets, GCPEx will seek to improve the GPM snowfall retrieval algorithms.

The GCPEx experiment will use instrumented aircraft (NASA DC-8, NASA-funded University of North Dakota Cessna Citation, and Canadian National Research Council Convair 580) for flights over heavily-instrumented ground sites located in and around the Environment Centre for Atmospheric Research Experiments (CARE) located in Egbert, Ontario. The DC-8 aircraft will fly high above clouds and precipitation with instruments similar to those on the GPM Core satellite. The Citation and C580 aircraft will fly through snowing clouds to measure snowflake properties in situ. Ground-based equipment such as radars and surface particle and snow water equivalent measurement instrumentation will connect airborne measurements of snowfall to what is measured at the ground. Data from the experiment will be used to develop and validate snow and frozen precipitation retrieval algorithms used in the generation of data products for GPM, CloudSat and future polar precipitation missions planned by the European Union.

For more information about GCPEx:

GCPEx Overview

GCPEx Campaign Blog

Ground Validation Image Gallery (recent images from GCPEx)

You can also follow this campaign and other NASA precipitation measurement missions on Facebook

Operation IceBridge 2010 Antarctic Campaign

February 15th, 2011 by Kevin Ward

Test post.

Archaeology and NASA

August 26th, 2010 by Christina Coleman and Melissa Quijada

Two NASA Earth scientists have traded in their air-conditioned offices for the uncomfortably arid fields of central Turkey. Toiling nine or more hours per day, seven days a week, they walk up to 10 miles a day searching ancient Turkey archaeological grounds for bone fragments, pottery and tombs. But they aren’t using shovels, picks, and brushes to do the job.

Read more [via NASA.gov]

Notes from the Field