Notes from the Field

Siberia 2012: Old Fires, New Rain

July 15th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Embenchime River

10:45 p.m. Siberia  10:45 a.m. EDT

71°F High  42°F Low     Steady rain.

Dr. Ranson reports

Tonight I’m calling from my tent.  I’m in my sleeping bag already too.  I like it here, because it’s dry.

Outside, it is raining, and everything is wet. I hear rain dripping on the tent, and all around.  It’s actually loud, but it is also comforting.  It is out there; I am in here.  All is well..

This morning I woke early, started the campfire and worked around camp as the others started joining me.  We had a breakfast meeting to figure out how to deal with the day, and the rest of the trip. We’re running late, but we needed to work this area as hard as we can before moving on.

Today was rainy and overcast. The trees appeared as strange shadows at times, with many interesting shapes.

We’re camping close to a line of GLAS footprints. Because they go upslope, and GLAS isn’t very effective for vegetation on steep slopes, aren’t the best plots in the world for us.  But they are the best plots we can reach – and so that’s what we will do!  We came to Siberia to learn what we can – and we’ll gather all the data we can.   So today, job number one was to get out in the woods, get into the hills, to measure the trees in that line of GLAS footprints.

And that’s exactly what we did.  We had a long day but we managed to complete 11 GLAS fooprints – a pretty good day’s work.  We also were able to add  8 non-GLAS sample plots.  Those will really help with the G-LiHT instrument calibrations when it flies here next year.  So, at the end of the day, we’re really please with ourselves.  We’ve not only gotten a nice dataset of GLAS plots already, but now we have a really good dataset for G-LiHT too.

Slava had a great day, himself.  He located more excellent sites for his fire return studies.  He’s found spots on both side of the river, so he has a richness of samples now.  We still want more of biomass measurements, but I think, as far as Slava goes, he’s got more than enough data for fire return to just pull up roots and head back to his lab.  If he were here without us, I suspect he’d be tempted to head right back to Krasnoyarsk, start his analysis and pretty soon start turning out some fascinating papers. But here we are – and we want more data.  He’s quite willing to stay with us and help out.  He’ll probably find quite a bit more before we are done, as well.

The morning broke overcast, maybe even slightly gloomy.  Rain began to fall in earnest in the mid-afternoon, around 2 o’clock.  It is a steady rain.  No big wind, no lightning, no drama.  Just steady, persistent rain.  The kind that gets you wet, no matter what.  And so, most of the day, we were wet.

Every expedition, there are days like this.  It’s no fun to sleep wet, so I long ago learned to squirrel away one set of dry clothes in my tent, preferably inside my sleeping bag, and both inside a dry bag.  It’s okay if you are wet in the daytime – no one is going to melt, and maybe rain might help us smell a little better.   But wet at night makes for a bad night’s sleep.

We’ve been rained on three or four days already this trip, but those were only short rains.  Today is the first really steady precipitation, and it’s very clear this region needs it.  Rain will be good for the plants, and maybe it will be good for the river, too.  It would be a God-send to have this river rise, so we could escape some of the rocky shallows.  No one is complaining about the rain.

We continue, however to fret a bit about the time. We have to really get moving to get back on schedule.  We can’t be fighting the shallow Embenchime like we have been – just don’t have the time.  If we can’t move faster on the river, then we risk abandoning further sampling.

We lost two days of this expedition already. One day was lost because of flight delays due to the fires  – a result of dry and hot conditions in the forests of central Russia. We lost the other day due to a very low Embenchime – the result of a dry spring and winter in the mountains nearby.   The common link for both of these has been the dry, hot weather across Russia.  I hear that the United States is in drought, too.  We had a heatwave in the US as we left to come here, and another is in the making now, I am told.  It’s rather disturbing.  It seems like an awful lot of the world is hot and dry right now.

I guess those of you at home might be wondering what the big deal is – so what if we come off the river a little late?  All I can say is that it takes a lot of planning to get flights that connect well. It can be a challenge to get all the way from Tura back to Dulles airport in Virginia.  If you miss a flight, you could be left waiting a long time, in some airport along the way.  Waiting around is a major waste of time – and money.  It is much better for us to leave as scheduled, if possible.

Well, there is no use to fret in the rain.  Tomorrow we will get back in our boats and see what mood the Embenchime is in.  It’s still possible we can move along quickly, and reach all of our goals.  Including a timely return!

The forests in this region have burned in the past, although no active fires have been seen. It is a very rich area for collecting fire return data. Here is a sample collected by Slava and Sergei on July 12. A fire scar can clearly be seen. The tree has made an effort to heal over the fire scar. These samples are carefully examined in the lab not only for fire scars, but for tree age and growth patterns.

I had an interesting experience today.  We were in one GLAS sampling area, measuring trees.  I was recording data, while Pasha and Guoqing were making the tree measurements.  They called out the species, diameter breast height (dbh) measured, and comments on the trees, especially if the tree was dead and/or had broken branches.  As they called out the dbh measurements, pretty soon I started recognizing the same numbers, nearly exactly, over and over.  In fact, there were about three sizes of trees, all very nearly the same dbh, with very little in between.  There were really big trees, medium sized trees, and also a group of pretty small trees.  No continuum at all  – just these three sizes.

Not only that, when I started looking more closely, each of the size classes shared not just dbh, but physical attributes.  In other words, all the big trees were “dead” and their branches were broken off.  The middle sized trees were “dead”, but they retained their branches.  The smaller trees were all green, living trees.  Well, a very few of the large and mediums were alive too – but darn few.  There was a very clear pattern here.

We looked the stand more closely, and we noted a lot of fire scars.  Without a doubt, fire burned – and mostly killed – two separate generations of trees here.  The first fire burned about 70 year ago, and it killed the largest trees.  Trees began to fill in, and grew for a half-century or so, then, about 15 years ago, another blaze decimated this stand.  Now there are a lot of dead trees, a very few survivors, and a very thick stand of small, living, green trees.  The small trees are all about fifteen years old.

It was quite interesting to see the data come in, and recognize the pattern.  Normally burn scars make patterns which are pretty visible in the forest.  But this stand was very thick, so it was hard to see the big picture.  Once we started looking, we could see the pattern, sure. But it was the data that helped us recognize what had happened.  It’s a good illustration of the power of collecting objective data.  Data can make things quite obvious that one never would recognize in any other way.   But, of course, we have to also say that we have not fully analyzed this data.  We only have an impression – and as sound as it seems, we’ll need to take the data back to the lab do a full analysis before we can be certain that our impression actually is statistically significant.

The forest varies a lot here, in terms of size and fire history.  There was a large, fully mature stand with absolutely no regeneration.  That stand likely had not seen any fire in a very long time.  Then there were places where the young trees grew very, very thickly, with just a very few living large trees scattered here and there.  Those areas are suggestive of a very recent fire.  We also saw thick stands of medium sized trees – about 10 cm dbh – probably there was a fire there, but it was further in the past.

The range in tree sizes we found today ran from about 5 centimeters (just less than 2 inches in diameter), to about 35 centimeters in diameter.    We don’t measure anything less than 5 centimeters.  Why?  First of all, it takes a lot of time to measure the really tiny stuff.   But mostly because studies have shown that there is a very low percentage of biomass in any given plot that measures less than 5 cm dbh.   This is shown in the literature, and is accepted – it just doesn’t pay to measure the really tiny stuff.

In Maine, where the forest has repeatedly been measured, we decided to look at the percentage of forest biomass between 3 cm and 10 cm.   We used historical data against our new data.  And we found that the biomass found between 3 cm and 10 cm makes up only about 8% of the total forest biomass.  That’s not a whole lot of the entire picture.  I don’t have figures for average biomass less than 2 cm, but you can see it would likely be much less than that 8% – so we just don’t feel we need to take the time to measure each little sapling.  We do note they are there, and we note the species, so we can take the presence into account in our models, if we feel the need.  We don’t ignore anything – we just try to make the most of our time.

Time – yes, time is precious.  It’s expensive and difficult to get time in these forests.  With the delays, time has become our enemy.  When we can get to our plots, we really do fantastic – the team is working extremely well, extremely efficiently, and our spirits are bright.  We just need time – and I don’t want to share the time with the shallows of the Embenchime.  Well, we’ll see how it goes.  Tomorrow we are up early and back on the river.

2 Responses to “Siberia 2012: Old Fires, New Rain”

  1. Forrest Hall says:

    Hi Jon:

    Thanks for the update. Brings back a lot of memories and relief that I am not in that tent avoiding the rain. Good luck on your data collection.

    • Joanne Howl says:

      Forrest, Jon sends his best wishes to you, and those of the entire team as well. The work you have done, and continue to do, has made major contributions to our understanding of this world, and has encouraged many young scientists. Thanks for letting us know you are following our expedition!