Weblog: Dr. Jon Ranson in Siberia

Sunday, July 29, 2007

From Evenkiyskiy Region, Siberia, 9:10 p.m. Siberia (9:10 a.m. EDT)

Today the scientists spent their first full day in the wilderness studying the forest ecology of the mountain near camp. To get to the top, they had to push through thick underbrush and hike over fields of boulders. They stopped often to measure the height, circumference, and age of trees, and to observe variations in the forest related to elevation gain and warming temperatures.

These curious mountains are low in height and have flattened tops covered with weathered basalt rocks. Geologists call them the Siberian Traps, after the Swedish word for "stairs" (trappa), which they resemble. They were formed during a period of volcanic activity about 250 million years ago. The basalt is what remains of huge, ancient lava flows. It is during this period that Earth suffered one of the largest mass extinctions in history, losing 50 percent of its animal families, 95 percent of all marine species, many species of trees, and the trilobites.

From Jon Ranson

This has been one tough but interesting day. We walked up the mountain beside our camp with the idea that we’d see the tundra that was supposed to be at the top. But there was no tundra. Just forest.

We’ve got a Russian map from 50 years ago, and it clearly states this mountain is tundra. The maps were based on aerial photography. But it’s really hard to mistake forest and tundra so I doubt the maps were wrong. It’s also interesting that today’s age measurements showed some of the trees were 90 years old.

  Photograph of Pasha Oskorbin and Paul Montesano measurng the height of a fallen larch tree, July 29, 2007.

The forests are larch here, which is the only tree that is well adapted to conditions this far north. We also see some willow, alder and juniper—all in small, bushy forms due to the harsh environment. As we head to the south, the species will begin to change.

That’s exactly why we wanted to start this far north, so we could observe the changes. This transition between two different ecosystems is called an ecotone. The ecotone changes with latitude and elevation. When you climb a mountain, you can compress the changes. If today’s mountain had still had tundra at the summit, we would have spent the day walking through an entire taiga-tundra transition.

What strikes me today is just how tenacious life is. Every place in which it’s possible, something is growing. I’ve seen a variety of vegetation and lots of different flowers. Even the smallest bits of rock are covered with lichen. The growing season is short here, but life has adapted. We’ve seen signs of moose, bear, and elk, and we hear birdsong everywhere. The forest is stark, but it teems with life.

It also seethes with mosquitoes. We are dressed head to toe in protective bug gear. They can’t easily feast on us but when hundreds are crawling on you they are still distracting. I glanced over at a colleague earlier. They had swarmed his mosquito netting and it looked like he was wearing a carpet of bugs on his head.

Speaking of feasting, Slava caught a pike and something that looks like trout. There are not a lot of fish but they are big. Our Russian colleagues cleaned them, cut them into two-inch chunks, then put them all into a pot—even the heads! We had fish soup for breakfast and fish soup for lunch.

Tomorrow we plan to move down river to locate and verify measurements made by NASA satellites. But that’s tomorrow. Now it’s supper time. Mmm . . . fish soup.


Pasha Oskorbin and Paul Montesano measure the height of a fallen larch tree, July 29, 2007.