Notes from the Field

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.

Siberia 2012: Long Day in the Larch

July 11th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Embenchime River  66  N  97 E

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

70°F high   53°F low   rainy with gusting wind

Dr. Ranson Reports:

This evening I have to admit – I am tired.  I was out of my tent and working around camp by 7:30 this morning.  We reached our field sites about 11, and worked making measurements until after 7 in the evening.  It was a good day’s work, and great to be back out in the field.

At the end of the day, we had collected data from 22 plots – a full day.  And yes, we trampled across Papa Moose’s territorial line.  Fortunately, he graciously decided to leave us alone.

The morning began with paperwork in camp beside the Embenchime. Sergei (left) is entering GPS points. Ross (left) is checking out the plot sampling plan. Slava (center) is updating his expedition journal. Note the rocky soil – this is the same type of ground that the tents sit on – and on which the scientists sleep.

It was chilly overnight, and the morning was cloudy, with winds from the northwest that carried promises of rain.  By the afternoon, it the rain and wind had arrived. It wasn’t all that bad – we still were able to work – and this region needs rain.

The cool, rainy weather, however, seemed to cause Slava some pain.  He had hurt his back earlier in the week, but it hasn’t been troubling him too much. This morning, however, he decided it was wise to rest a day in camp.  We divided up into two teams: Ross, Sergei and Guoqing formed one group, and Pasha and I made up the other group.  The three man team was able to measure 12 plots, and my two-man team measured 10.  That’s a pretty good day’s work in these rugged lands.

Today we concentrated on sites where the GLAS instrument on the ICESat satellite has already acquired data.  This will help us correlate that data with the truth on the ground.  To get to a site, we plug the coordinates into our handheld GPS, then follow the GPS instructions to that point.  We then locate the center of that plot, as closely as possible.  Because there can be error in GPS, we then take out a more sophisticated GPS – a standing model with a large antenna – and double check our central coordinates. The handhelds gave us very good correlation with the fancier model.

Once we identify our sample plot, we make a set of very standard measurements and observations.  For each tree, we write down the species (all larch here) then measure the dbh, or the diameter of the trunk at breast height.  Then we choose a few trees in each plot and measure their height.  We’re using a basic inclinometer to find height.  To do this, we stand away from the tree, measure the distance from us to the trunk, then sight along this instrument to the top of the tree.  The inclinometer gives us the angle formed by the line from the top of the tree to the horizon.   We write that angle down.  Later we’ll break out calculators and derive the height of the tree.  It’s all triangles – simple stuff.  We find the length of one side of our imaginary triangle, and two angles (a right angle between the trunk and the ground, and the inclinometer angle). With two angles and one side, we can easily calculate the other sides of the triangle – and the height of the tree – no computers required.

In each plot, we find every tree over 5 cm in diameter to note species and dbh.  We also observe the understory and note what is found there – lichen, moss, sedges, shrubs or rock. These observations help us understand the reflectance properties of the forest floor.  When we look at the data acquired from space, this information will help us reduce the noise of the data, by removing the background reflectance.

It is very important for the scientists to make detailed notes about the ground cover in each study plot. Here, the understory on the left is primarily lichen. To the right, both Vaccinium (blueberries) and Betula nana (dwarf birch) grow. Each of these ground covers will reflect light different, and therefore should look very different from space. The reason for the difference in ground cover is soil mosture. To the left, the soil is dry; that on the right is more moist.

We also measure the shape of the crown of the trees, to help our mathematical models calculate the light reflectance from the crowns.  We measure the width of the crown in two directions, and the depth of the crown.  The depth is the measurement of the live crown from the top of the tree to the lowest live branch.  These measurements will give us the shape of the crown.  The “crown” is where the leaves and the branches are located.  Then, with statistical distributions, we can calculate how much of the larch canopy consists of leaf, and how much is branches.  All of this goes into our models to help us understand the reflectance characteristics of the crown of the trees in the forest.  It all helps us understand what a satellite would see from space.

We use these measurements to make better instruments, and to better understand the data we already have acquired.  Our driving question, of course, is to find out how much carbon is held by these forests, and carbon storage correlates strongly with biomass.  Because most of the biomass is contained in the tree trunks, we can get good idea of the of a tree biomass if we know the tree diameter and height. We can do that simply by measuring, here on the ground.

But forests are just too vast to personally measure each tree.  To know about the forests, we look to remote sensing – to instruments carried by satellites or aircraft – to collect data for us.  And that’s where it gets complicated.  Such instruments collect a lot of data, and we have to know a lot about things like the reflectance of the background and the canopy to sort out the noise from the useful information.  Maybe it all sounds all very complicated, but this is really critical – being able to sort out the noise from the trees is very fundamental science that is required in order to understand the biomass in the forest.

The GLAS plots run in straight lines, one every 172 meters.  When we finish with one plot, we load the coordinates of the next into the GPS, and walk 172 meters in that direction, and start the process all over again.

What we’ve found today is that there is great variability in the trees in each plot.  One plot had a total of six trees in it.  Another had 64 trees.  Based on our observations, it appears that the growth of the larch here is controlled by soil moisture.  Where conditions were dry, the trees appeared bigger and further apart.  If it was moist, they were closer together and smaller.

We saw one area where there were large trees mixed with a stand of smaller trees.  The large trees seemed to be in decline.   The smaller trees were all about the same age, and growing fairly thickly.  The impression is that a fire may have come through here several years ago, and damaged the older trees enough that they are slowly failing, and at the same time, the fire spurred regeneration.

Fire is a strong stimulant of larch regeneration.  It causes the cones to open, allowing for re-seeding. And fire provides the right conditions in the soil to enhance germination of larch seeds.  Larch has been called a “pyrophytic” tree – that means fire-loving.   That may be a little strong – because larch stands certainly can be burned to the ground by hot crown fires.  But once the fire has passed, you do see intense regeneration of larch – sometimes several thousand larch saplings growing in just a hectare.  Not all of these will live, of course, but the fire-induced reproductive effort is quite strong.

When we returned to camp, we heard that Slava had a little adventure today.  Every time we make camp, we set up a big tent.  It’s tall, so we can stand up in it.  We use it for storage and to protect of our gear, and sometimes we use it as an office.  To hold our tents down, we just tie them to rocks, because you can’t drive tent pegs into pure rocks. Normally, this works fine.  Today, as the rains began, a big gust of wind came up.  It caught our big tent, lofting it up and sending it down river.  Slava gave chase, and managed to catch it and drag it back to camp.  When we arrived, all was in good order, although our fine big tent was now VERY heavily weighted down with rocks. We’re grateful Slava needed to rest his back – I don’t know if he got any rest, but he did save our tent.

Pasha (left) and Guoqing (right) enjoy a fine lunch in the field. The primary components are canned fish, ikra (a canned veggie paste), and for desert, a candy bar.

We had plenty to eat again.  Oatmeal for breakfast, and a portable lunch of canned fish and ikra – that’s a canned vegetable paste that seems popular in Russia – and a Snicker’s bar.   For dinner, it was fish soup.  We are eating a lot of protein, with some high-fiber carbs and not too much sugar.  I feel like I’m losing weight already, and I look forward to winning Ross’ little weight loss challenge with me.  Hmmmm…. I wonder if Ross ate his Snicker’s bar, too?

We’re looking forward to another day’s worth of work at this campsite tomorrow.  We have several more plots, so we’ll probably spend another night here before moving down river.  The final decision, however, will be deferred until tomorrow afternoon.  If we get done in time, we’ll move on tomorrow evening.  If not, we’ll eat fish soup and sleep.


Siberia 2012: On the Banks of the Embenchime

July 10th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Daily Report from Dr. Jon Ranson

Embenchime River  66  N  97 E

9:00 a.m. local, 9:00 p.m. EDT

65°F high   52°F low   Sunny

It is a beautiful day on the Embenchime!  The sun is shining, the skies are clear with just a few clouds scattered in the sky.  We’re 282 miles in a straight line north of Tura. The river isn’t straight, however, so it’s more like 480 miles by boat.    Earlier a brisk breeze blew the mosquitoes away, but not so much now. We pitched our tents on a dry, rocky bar along the river, and the local horde has come to greet us. Now I finally feel like I’m on an expedition!


The scientific team at Tura airport, ready to head to the Embenchime. From left to right: Guoqing Sun, Ross Nelson, Jon Ranson, Slava Kharuk, Sergei Im and Pasha Oskorbin.

Guess what we had for our inaugural camp meal? Fish soup!  For those of you who have followed our blogs since 2007, you know that fish is a staple meal. But it’s nothing like the chowder many Americans are familiar with. Our Russian colleagues prepare the soup by cleaning freshly caught fish, then chopping them up, head and all, and dropping them in a pot of water, along with some spices. It’s pretty tasty, and nutritious, as long as one doesn’t east the sharp bones.  But even a good thing can go too far – in 2007, we ate so much of it that some of us were having serious fantasies about other food – like French fires and pizza.   Tonight, it tasted very good.

This morning we packed up and drove to the airport.  We arrived early to talk to the company that rents helicopters. It turns out that they also have a big bi-plane available for rent.  They use it for remote area deliveries for people and supplies, and for reconnaissance.  It’s not at all like the little crop dusters one might think of when they hear bi-plane.  It’s very big, and can carry a good sized load of people and gear.

It looks like we could have access to this plane next year, and it looks like it will be quite feasible to house and run the G-HLiT instrument from this plane.  We’d like to find a Cessna, because that’s the plane that the instrument was designed to fly aboard.  But this Anatov An-2 is a real possibility – and much better than a helicopter.

One major driver of this expedition is preparing for the flights of the G-LiHT Instrument over the next two years.  G-LiHT stands for Goddard’s LiDAR, Hyperspectral, and Thermal airborne imager. It’s an instrument package that was put together by Bruce Cook at his team at NASA, and is designed to be a better tool to study forested ecosystems.  It has two lidars, which are high resolution and can measure canopy crowns and gaps, and identify low growing vegetation.  The hyperspectral and thermal instruments in the package can help characterize species, pick up photosynthetic pigments, and measure surface temperatures.  The instrument package can even help determine environmental stressors, such as moisture content of the leaves, and help figure out whether we’re looking at a shrub or rocks – something we’re not getting from our space-based instruments.  We think this is a great instrument package, and will give us really good data – but we need to locate an aircraft to fly it aboard, and we need fresh data from the field to help calibrate it in these larch forests.

The current lidar data we have available is ICESat 1 data.  That stands for the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite.  The instrument on board, called GLAS (Geoscience Laser Altimeter System) was designed to measure ice, and clouds.  The ICESat missions focus on ice and cloud, primarily.  Vegetation can be measured, but it is a second thought for this program.  ICESat 1 decommissioned from service in 2010.  The replacement, ICESat 2, the next-generation satellite designed to look at ice and clouds in the polar regions, won’t be launched until 2016.

Nearing the landing site, Ross Nelson (left) and Pasha Oskorbin (right) excitedly anticipate arrival. Sergei Im (center) practices patience.

The boreal region is important, and it’s changing.  In order to understand what is happing in this part of the world, we have to be able to have instruments that can measure vegetation – the above ground biomass, where a lot of carbon is stored.  It’s just vital work, and it can’t wait for ICESat 2.  Because the need is so immediate, we can’t create a new satellite fast enough.  So Bruce and his team went to work to pull together this extremely portable, very functional instrument package.  And we’re ready to get out and use it.

But first, we had to get to the river.  We had a little hitch at the airport.  We drove into the Tura airport through the freight gate, because it was near the helicopter.  Ross, Guoquing, Slava and I were all crammed into the van, with a huge pile of gear in the back. As icing on the cake, Slava’s shotgun was perched on top of the pile.  The gate was guarded by a serious looking mature lady, in an impressive uniform. She nodded and asked Slava questions in Russian.  He answers, and all seems well.  Then she walked around the van and looked inside. I could tell when she saw the shotgun, because her pleasant look hardened and her head began shaking vigorously and firmly.  No translation was needed – in any language, she was saying “no way are you going anywhere with that gun”.

We took a little diversion to a different building, where Slava chatted with officials and finally received clearance.  The shotgun received a personal escort. It was hand carried to the helicopter by an unformed official.  He personally loaded the gun onto the helicopter – I believe they put it forward with the pilots, because I didn’t see it again until we arrived on the river.  Carrying a gun is a big deal here – it can be done, but they do make sure there’s not a chance that anyone will discharge it near the aircraft.

We had a good flight in.  It was exciting to be flying over these remote forests again.  After a two hour flight northward, the pilot set down on a rocky bar – our new home.  We started unloading tents, clothes and sleeping bags – it’s just a huge pile of stuff.  And it’s ours to care for and carry downriver for the next two weeks.

As soon as we landed, one of the helicopter crewmen hopped off the plane running, with a fishing rod in his hand.  He ran to the river, tossed in his line, and started pulling out fish.  Soon another crew member was downstream, fishing.  The first caught six in just a few minutes; the other caught several as well.   The moment our gear was out, however, they were back in the helicopter and then, within a few minutes, we were all alone on the river.  They were good sports, though – they left us three fish.  Three fish is a good start, but hardly enough for dinner for six scientists.  So we went fishing too.  Slava caught a seven pound pike, and I caught a pretty big fish, too.  Soon we had enough for fish soup.

We’re camping on a big rocky bar, with trees all around.  The river is beautiful.  Fishing is good, too, but that’s not why we are here – we’re here to make measurements and collect data.  The closest GLAS point is about 500 meters away.  Tomorrow, we’ll break into two crews, and half of us will go northeast and half of us southwest and we’ll collect the measurements we can here tomorrow.  There are a lot of GLAS footprints around – that’s the instrument on ICESat which provides us with the best available data to date on forest structure.  We plan to measure heavily from this spot, and then move down river.  I’ll be glad to get out and get measuring.

While we were just finishing up dinner, and trying to get the sat connection going – we found a serious glitch.  The data terminal is not working.  We checked it out in Maryland, and it was great.  We have a strong signal, and everything looks like we should be fine.  But it appears we have a problem with permissions of some sort.  I’ve tried to reach the 24/7 support line of our provider, but had no luck.  The crew back at home – my office staff and our writer, Joanne, will work on this today, and hopefully we can bring you photos soon.

A large bull moose crossed the river twice, about 200 m upstream from the camp. He seemed to have a quietly challenging attitude, as if patrolling his territory and firmly suggesting that the scientists stay on their side of his line. The GLAS footprints lie in Papa Moose’s territory, however; tomorrow the scientists will make measurements in that forest. Hopefully the bull will be willing to share his lands.

We’re seeing a lot of wildlife this trip, so far.  There were lots of birds in Tura.  I’ve seen ravens, pigeons, European house sparrows, arctic terns, gulls and a whole lot of things I couldn’t identify.  One of the birds in Tura was a small brown bird, with red on his tail.  I asked Slava to tell me the name of the bird, and he said something in Russian – something I won’t ever remember.  He said it translated to “bird who has his tail in a fire”.  Russian can be a very poetic and descriptive language!

While we were in camp, a big bull moose came out of the forest about 200 yards upstream of us.  We didn’t scare him at all – but he certainly took notice of us.  He walked across the river very slowly, looking at us the whole time.  Soon he crossed very slowly back again.  He was magnificent, but he seemed to be challenging us a little.  Like he was showing us the edges of his territory, and warning us to stay out of his space.   If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate – because our first plots are right in that direction.  In the morning, we’ll be heading straight for Papa Moose’s land.

It’s 9:20 p.m. here, and the sun is still up.  I have a good 45 minutes before the sun sets behind the hill right in front of us.  In Tura the sun went down at 11:30 p.m. and came up at 3:30 am, so that makes a 4 hour night.  But the night is more of a dusky light, they say.  Of course, I am asleep for those 4 hours, so I can’t testify personally to that.

Tonight, I can’t wait on the sun to slip below the horizon in order to go to sleep.  I’ll be slipping into my sleeping back to try to get some much needed rest on the rocky ground.  Tomorrow will be a long and physically strenuous day.  I’m looking forward to it.

Writer’s note:  After speaking with Jon, I worked with Jacob Gude, the Biospheric Lab’s secretary, and between the two of us we were able to contact the satellite phone provider.  The service technician, Andy Cool, once we were able to reach him, provided prompt and diligent service.  It turns out that there was a problem with permissions required by the Russian government – new requirements that had just been put into place.  The company was able to solve the problem, and the data terminal now works.  It is slow, and high resolution photos are too big to be sent from the field.  But we do now have the ability to post photos from the field – and are quite grateful for the good stateside assistance.


Siberia 2012: A Slow and Smoky Arrival

July 9th, 2012 by Joanne Howl

Daily report from Dr. Jon Ranson:

Tura, Siberia

July 9, 9:10 p.m. Local Siberia; 9:10 a.m. next day EST

High 74°F   Low 45°F   

We have arrived!  We are now Tura, at our home away from home, at the field camp.   It’s been a long journey, but here we are – on the brink of starting our days on the Embenchime River.  And I’m buzzed – I can’t wait to get out and get started.  We are so very ready to go!

Despite flight delays due to forest fires burning across central Russia, the NASA team safely arrived in Krasnoyarsk only a few hours late. Additional delays slowed their arrival at Tura, costing them at least a half-day’s work in the field. Here Ross Nelson (left) and Guoqing Sun (right) work in the offices of the Sukachev Forest Institute.

Ross Nelson and I boarded an airplane in Dulles airport, in Virginia, on July 5, looking forward to a very long 26-hour trip from home to Krasnoyarsk.  The flights were smooth, and landed in Moscow and St. Petersburg on time.  Stoked that things were going so well, we heard the bad news – our flight to Krasnoyarsk had been delayed for several hours. That was inconvenient.

Soon we heard that our flight to Tura, schedule to arrive here on July 9, had also been delayed.  That was bad news, indeed. We needed to arrive in Tura early morning on July 9- today-  in order to make our connection with the waiting helicopter.  We wanted to make that connection so we could get right to work.

But no luck. We would arrive in Tura too late for our helicopter.  We weren’t losing hours – we were losing a full day of work.  Our schedules are quite tight now, but I believe we can still make the necessary measurements and end our expedition with just enough time to make our flights back to America.

The flight delays were caused by smoke from a large number of forest fires that are burning across central Russia.  Coming from St. Petersburg to Krasnoyarsk on July 6, we were high-flying witnesses to a smoky scene.  At 33,000 feet, our airspace was smoke-free. But a thick blanket of smoke hung over much of the land below.  Smoke also rose into the upper atmosphere.  Smoke that high can travel long distances – some might even make it across the ocean to North America soon.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra satellite flew over central Russia on July 6, 2012, capturing this view of a curving river of smoke obscuring the land. Just a few hours later, Jon Ranson and Ross Nelson flew across the same area. Moscow and St. Petersburg lie off the western edge of the image. Krasnoyarsk lies just off the eastern edge. Tomsk, the point of departure for the 2010 Expedition, lies under a thick blanket of smoke in the upper third of the image. Active fires burn north of Tomsk, near or in the forests studied in 2010. The southwestern corner of the Embenchime River study site lies very close to the northeastern corner of this map – the only area which appears smoke and fire-free.

We left St. Petersburg near sunset, with the sun low on the horizon.  Smoky sunsets create very red skies, and the colors were pretty spectacular. It reminded me of the sunsets I saw just a few weeks ago when I visited Greely, Colorado. I was close to the High Park fire, and the sky was an amazing, blazing orange at sunset.  That was only one fire, however.  Dozens, or maybe hundreds, that colored the sky on July 6, as we passed above the smoke.

We flew over a huge, curving river of thick smoke.  It truly looked like a river, flowing, I think, generally north to south. We passed over it from west to east. As the sun set and the light dimmed, I could see the glow from some active fires.  As we passed near the Ob River, in the vicinity of our 2010 expedition, dark plumes of smoke rose high in the sky.

In another spot, I believe within an hour of Krasnoyarsk, we flew over a huge burn scar.  It was really stunning.  I was on the left side of the plane, and this scar extended way to the north, maybe even to the Arctic Sea. It took us several minutes to fly over it, so I’m estimating the scar was around 100 km across.  Just massive.

We landed in Krasnoyarsk after sunrise, on the morning of July 7.  Slava greeted us in the airport, and then we made our way to the House for Scientists, where we had hoped to sleep for a few hours.  After thirty hours of travel, and with a good half-day of work ahead of us, we certainly needed a rest.  When I lay down, however, my eyes were open and my mind racing.  I remember thinking “Wow, I’m totally wide awake.  I’ll never get to sleep!”  And then, it seemed instantly, I was opening my eyes and it was four hours later.  I guess I was truly exhausted!

Hard rains came in our first night in Krasnoyarsk, and they washed away some of the smoke.  Slava tells me that this is the first rain in a month.  It has been both hot and dry so far this year.  When I arrived, it felt like a typical Maryland summer day – hazy, hot and humid, with the temperature hovering around 80°F.  But this is Siberia.  Summer is typically clear, cool and breezy.

Yesterday Guoqing arrived in Krasnoyarsk from Bejing, completing our American field contingent.  We spent the day doing paperwork, finalizing plans, and trying to stay out of the smoke-filled air as much as possible.  Pasha and Sergei have been in Tura for the last several days, readying the equipment and making sure all supplies were in hand and in good working order.

While Slava Kharuk checks his shotgun at the security window of the Krasnoyarsk airport, Ross Nelson checks out the weight of his personal “baggage”.

Today we got up and went to the Krasnoyarsk airport, checked our luggage and readied ourselves for our flight.   Slava has a permit to bring a shotgun, for protection from wild animals.  Although it’s essential, that shotgun requires special handling and it must be given to security prior to boarding an airplane.  It takes a little while, but I’ll gladly sacrifice a little efficiency for safety in the field.

While Slava was making sure he could save us, should a bear want us for his lunch, Ross and I decided we should see just how much our carcasses might weigh.  We hopped on a nearby baggage scale.  I weigh more than Ross, but neither of us were happy with their personal poundage.  We now have a friendly challenge to see whose weight will change the most over this trip.   You could say we’re going on the Embenchime Expedition Diet.

Apparently, no one let Pasha and Sergi know the Americans were dieting.  They were waiting for us, with a wonderful meal prepared. We ate a beautiful and savory potato and meat stew, along with a very unique carrot and red bean salad.  Truly delicious. I guess the diet begins tomorrow.

I keep thinking of the huge amount of smoke we’ve witnessed. The amount of forests burning this year is sobering, especially following the historically massive fire year in 2010.  Even though fire is a normal part of forest succession in the boreal forest, the impression is that there are too many fires, too soon after the last outbreak.  It just is not typical.

In far northern Siberia, where we are heading this year, the fire return intervals are on the order of every 250 to 300 years or so. That interval has been well-studied, and we’re confident in that finding.  Fire is important to the larch forest ecosystem, but it is an uncommon event.

A line of upper atmospheric smoke passes across the face of the moon on the night of July 6. This photo was taken out of the window of the airplane en route from St. Petersburg to Krasnoyarsk. Smoke that reaches the upper atmosphere often travels long distances. This smoke has the potential reach North America within a few days.

It is ironic that we are here to study, among other things, the effect of warming on the fire return interval.  It is predicted that as temperatures rise, fires will become more frequent.  Temperatures have risen in this area over the last several decades,. We will be collecting samples to see if fire frequency has risen in our study area, far north of here.

In 2010, we came to Siberia by way of Beijing, because the forests around Moscow were burning.  That year, we worked an area north of Tomsk, near the Ob River.  We didn’t have fire there that year, but we did see some fairly fresh burn scars.  Now, two years later, our flights are again delayed by widespread blazes in taiga.  And our 2012 study area appears to be on fire – so soon.  Fortunately, the taiga surrounding the Embenchime is not currently on fire, so we don’t anticipate any danger.

It’s sobering to realize that in two years so close together that the taiga has suffered such extreme fires.  Is this result of climate change?  Or a freak occurrence?  What I know, for sure, is that these fires appear to be consuming a lot of forest.  They must be releasing a whole lot of carbon into the atmosphere – and what happens here does affect the rest of our world.  I believe we really do need to pay attention to the health of the boreal forests, for the sake of all the Earth.