Weblog: Dr. Jon Ranson in Siberia

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

From Evenkiyskiy Region, Siberia, 9:05 p.m. Siberia (9:05 a.m. EDT)

Many Siberians call the first of August “the beginning of the end of summer.” This expression acknowledges how quickly warm weather will pass, and reminds people to prepare for the extreme cold to come. In July, the temperature reaches the 70s. By midwinter it drops to -33 F. The light begins to fade noticeably in August, too. In July, when the sun never sets, the region receives 40 percent sunshine on an average day. By September, it will be reduced to 15 percent, as the long polar night begins.

The larch tree is one of the notable markers of this transition season. During the last weeks of August the soft green needles turn bright yellow then drop as the trees go into deep hibernation. The scientists won’t get to enjoy the yellow forests; they are scheduled to leave just before the needles turn.

From Jon Ranson

Today we traveled about 35 kilometers down river. We have made camp on a rocky island. On one side is an 800-meter mountain that Slava will study tomorrow. Just upriver are many GLAS points that I will visit. It’s still raining. The river is rising too. We actually had to move our camp to higher ground this afternoon.

The view is beautiful from here. The mountain tops are covered with basalt, which is a dark black rock. The black rocks are spotted with bright red and yellow lichens. From this distance, when I look down river, the mountain tops are a gorgeous reddish purple.

We crossed below the Arctic Circle today. Just below the line we were greeted by a raven and a family of geese. A little bird, which Paul identified as a pipit, has joined us in camp. The bird eats mosquitoes so we like him. We attract mosquitoes so he seems to like us too.

As we traveled down river, I saw what the Siberians call a “drunken forest.” This area is permafrost, where the soil stays firmly frozen year round. Larch grows well here, but their roots are shallow. When permafrost melts, the trees lose their footing and tilt to the side. I guess the trees look like a drunk trying to walk home, tilted at crazy angles. It’s a curious sight, but it’s also a clear sign that the temperature in that spot has been warm enough to melt the permafrost.

  Drunken forest

We passed the remains of an Evenki settlement. The Evenki are the natives who were, historically, hunters and reindeer herders. Slava said the town had been abandoned recently—since 1991. The river had risen enough in the time since then to erode away many of the buildings.

The river had also exposed a nice cross section of peat bog, several meters thick. The Arctic is made up of lots areas like this, where organic matter builds up because it is too cold to decompose. A huge pool of carbon is stored in peat bogs and similar areas. Trapping this much carbon helps keep global temperatures down. But if the climate warms, then rapid decomposition could release lots of carbon dioxide and methane—both greenhouse gases—thus fueling greater temperature rise.

Paul took a turn in the kitchen today. He made porridge and created a macaroni and canned beef concoction for breakfast. He was undaunted by the fish de jour, coating it in spices and frying it up in a pan. It was great. I never knew he could cook! There’s just no end to today’s remarkable discoveries.


This is what the Siberians call a “drunken forest.” Permafrost that has not melted provides a solid foundation that holds trees upright. When permafrost melts, as it has here, the layer of loose soil deepens and trees lose their foundations, tipping over at odd angles.