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Notes from the Field

The Kulak Forest

August 15th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast    57.83 N 86.7 E

11:30 pm Siberia, 11:30 AM EST

 High: 56 F    Low 57 F     Light rain

Today started both early and suddenly, when Mikal decided it would be healthy for us to wake up and enjoy the day.  He jumped into The Pill and started honking the horn vigorously.  Then he walked all around camp, singing away.  It was a unique awakening, but effective. 

 Our camp turned out to be the site of an old forest fire.  On one side of the road, the fire had been a ground fire.  On the other, a stand-replacing fire.   A ground fire burns the forest floor.  They usually stay low and clear away understory and debris. They tend to leave adult trees scorched, but alive.  After a ground fire, seeds will quickly germinate and new growth, called regeneration will shoot up.  So on that side of the road, we see tall, scorched trees with an upper canopy of green needles, with a dense growth of young trees underneath.  A stand-regenerating fire burns hot and high.  It burns everything in its path, including mature trees.  So on that side of the road, we see a field of new green growth, with some blackened, dead trees scattered about.  

The regeneration – the young trees – can tell us how long ago the fire came through.  Scots pine put out one new set of branches, called whorls, each year.  So if you can count the whorls on the trunk, you know how old the trees are.  These young Scots Pines have 6 sets of whorls, so the stand burned six or seven years ago. 

After we tore down our camp, Mikal drove us east to a spot near the forest, and turned us loose.  We walked into the woods, using the GPS to find the first GLAS footprint, where we began to make measurements. Mikal returned to camp and Slava spent the day getting a leaking tire fixed. 

We measured 9 plots today – a good day’s work.  Sometimes we split our team into two groups, so we can work two plots simultaneously.  But today was calibration day, so we decided we’d work all together in one plot.  By staying close, we could make sure each hypsometer was measuring correctly, as well as make sure everyone was measuring in the same way.  It’s really important to calibrate everything – including human technique.  Getting ground-truth to be repeatable and accurate is absolutely vital if the data is going to be useful. 

 For lunch, we had a picnic in the woods.  We had bread, canned fish and caviar.  Well, that’s what the can said, in Russian … “caviar”.   I guess it was sort of a Russian joke, because the can was full of a red vegetable paste, with a salty taste and a consistency vaguely resembling fish eggs.  As it turned out, if you put “caviar” on a piece of bread, add a little canned fish and a thick slice of fresh onion, it’s really quite delicious. I’m not sure I’d do that in a nice restaurant, or where anyone could smell me afterwards, but here, in the forest, it was a real treat. 

 This forest has a lot of species diversity.  Which species predominates depends mostly on the drainage of the soil.  Birch likes the boggy, wet soil.  Spruce and pine prefer upland, dryer soils.  You can make a good guess about the soil, just by noting what species of tree is growing. 

I was also impressed by the large size of the trees.  Many are about 100 feet tall and ½ meter in diameter.   The tallest today was an aspen.  It was 34 m tall, with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 67 cm. 

Tall trees with large diameters growing in thick stands means a lot of biomass, and a lot of biomass means a lot of carbon.  There is a great deal of carbon tied up in this forest, for sure.  How much carbon is tucked away in Siberian forests is exactly what we are trying to understand. 

In the forest, we came across signs that someone had been working here many years ago.  We could see that trees had been selectively cut down.  Timber had been harvested maybe 80 or 90 years ago.  That would have been in the 20’s or 30’s, in the time of Joseph Stalin. 

 When Stalin came to power in Russia, one of the policies he created was collectivization.  All private farms suddenly belonged to the State, and individual farmers suddenly worked for the common good, not for themselves. Certain farmers, usually the more successful ones, the ones that had the most to lose, didn’t think this was a very good idea.  They protested, either by talk or by refusing to turn over all property to the State.

Stalin had no tolerance for disagreement – it was a cooperate-or-be-destroyed era.  He decided to end protests by removing these farmers, called kulaks, from Russia.  Some kulaks were tried for “crimes” and executed.  Some were sent to the Gulag (the Russian prison system), where most died.  The lucky ones were merely exiled from their homeland.  They were transported to Siberia and deposited there, in the most uninhabited and uninhabitable land that could be found.  Allowed almost nothing but the clothes they might be wearing, they were totally unprepared for living in the frigid, cruel land. 

But the land has it’s gentleness and the kulaks tended to be hardworking and excellent farmers. Many kulaks ended up surviving in exile.  I am told that descendants of the exiles that worked this timber nearly a century ago are still living in the area, and some are doing very well for themselves.  It was terribly hard to be exiled – there was true suffering here, in this forest and this community.  But many endured, and many thrived. 

As I was looking at the stumps, doing my own easy work, I felt connected to those men.  I felt tired today, although I had good gear, good food and good clothing.  It was hard to imagine how bone-tired they must have been, in frigid weather, with minimal clothing and a poor diet.  In a way, I felt them with us, their spirit and memory here in this forest.  And I felt humbled.   

At the end of the day Pasha called for a ride on his cell phone, and Mikal and The Pill showed up promptly.  Russia has cell phone towers everywhere, and our colleagues seem to be able to talk to each other in the most remote places on earth with no trouble.  It is just amazing.

We rode into our new campsite, tired, cold, dirty and hungry, knowing we still had to make camp and dinner before we could rest.  But we were in for a treat.  Not only did we get excellent taxi service, but when we walked into camp, it was like walking into a friend’s home.  The tents were up, a fire was roaring, tea was simmering and there was warm food ready to eat.   What a delight! 

And there stood Slava, welcoming us home and calling us “heroes of the expedition”.  With true Siberian hospitality, he offered a ceremonial toast fit for a hero’s return.  What a marvelous thing, to be so tired and chilled, then to return to such a warm scene.  The food was fabulous, and soon we were sleepy from the day’s work, the good nourishment and the warm fire.  I have to say, they do know how to make hard work fun.

The Road to Belyy Yar

August 14th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast  57.45 N 85.96 E

11:30 pm Siberia, 11:30 am EST

 High: 60 F  Low 62 F   Light rain

 It’s been quite a long day on the road.  We spent about 11 hours today working our way about 700 km through the countryside to find this campsite.   We got in as the sun was going down.  We scrambled to pitch tends, and then most of us went right off to bed.  It’s just me and the mosquitoes.   I think they are happy to have my company. 

We had a little trouble with loading the vehicles.  We have a lot of stuff we’re taking with us.  We got everything stowed securely then we realized we’d made a big mistake – there wasn’t enough room for all the people.  Something had to go.  For awhile it seemed to be a question of if they would keep the inflatable boat or me.  I’m happy to report that they picked me, and we left the boat behind.   It’s a loss, though – it means we won’t be able to reach the more remote sites.  

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The Great Day

August 13th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Krasnoyarsk, Siberia    56.2° N 92.5°E

10:20 PM Siberia; 10:20 AM next day EST

Temp: High:  62°F    Low: 41°F Wind: light    Some fog

Hello from Siberia!  We’ve finally arrived safely and happily in Krasnoyarsk.  Weather is good here.  It’s slightly cool and rainy, without any sign of the smoke and foul air that we’ve heard about from the fires near Moscow.   Apparently western Siberia has escaped the summer’s terrible heat, the drought and the fires that are burning in the west of Russia.  Slava tells me there has been plenty of rain in the past month and lots of cool weather.  So summer is Krasnoyarsk is unchanged from past years, and I’m glad for that.

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August 10th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Dr. Jon Ranson is an earth scientist specializing in radar, lidar and remote sensing. As NASA Goddard Space Flight Center DESDynI Lidar Project Scientist and Head of the NASA GFSC Biospheric Sciences Branch in Greenbelt, Maryland, he uses these tools for studying vegetation type and biomass in ecosystem research. Under his guidance the Branch is advancing the use of satellite technology to study the carbon cycle and ecosystem science. Dr. Ranson has participated in numerous field campaigns in the United States, Canada and Siberia to improve our ability to measure and monitor vegetated ecosystems from space. He enjoys hiking, birding, music and outdoor cooking.
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Wild West Siberia – map

August 10th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Western Siberia is, in places, remote.  However, much of the region can be accessed by a system of roads and rivers.  When planning this expedition, the scientists needed to find the location of GLAS footprints – measurements taken by the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System aboard the ICESat Satellite – in the area as well as find routes to enter those footprints.  The goal of the expedition is to measure by hand, on location, as many GLAS footprints as possible in the study area. This is called ground-truth validation, and is an essential part of understanding data acquired by remote sensing instruments.  
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