Weblog: Dr. Jon Ranson in Siberia

Sunday, August 5, 2007

From Evenkiyskiy Region, 10:47 p.m. Siberia (10:47 a.m. EDT)

In the past nine days, life has developed a rhythm. On travel days, the team breaks camp, navigates a flooding river, fishes, cooks, and sets up camp again. On work days, they push through underbrush, step through bogs, and slip on wet basalt rock fields. They then carefully measure hundreds of trees and collect dozens of samples of fire-scarred trunks each day.

On their return to camp, they make dinner, usually fish soup or pasta with canned meat. As they enter their tents, they try to kill the mosquitoes that follow them in—a rolled-up piece of paper is a popular weapon. As the insect-clearing thumps fall silent, each crawls into his sleeping bag and quickly falls asleep on top of the round rocks that pass for “beach” on the roaring Kochechum River. Despite the challenges, they manage to stay in good moods. Every day they report, “We are all still smiling.”

From Jon Ranson

It is mah-vel-ous here. Raining, yes, but I’m in the tent now and might dry out a little, I think. The key is to keep one set of clothes inside the tent. That way you can sleep dry, more or less. Outside, clothes are quite a challenge. In the rain, they get soaked, of course. But we end up soaked on warm days, too. Remember, we’re covered head to toe in bug gear, and it gets hot under that. Sweat or rain—either way, it’s wet. I’m not sure I recall what “dry” really feels like.

We have our daily rituals. Gouqing gets up early every morning to take a walk by the river. He’ll stop at a good spot on the riverbank and do t’ai ch’i. It was surreal, the first day, to wake and see him in this wilderness, with the rocks, mountains and river all around. But it is a pleasant and peaceful way to start the day, even for those of us who only watch.

Today we broke camp to move about 7 kilometers down stream. Then we worked many hours in the forest, making measurements in our GLAS footprints—the ground area covered by a GLAS observation. We also took samples for Slava’s fire-interval study.

  Tree trunk

This is a very dynamic area. As the temperatures warm, there is a trend for southern forest trees to encroach on the northern species. So the pines will tend to move into the larch forests; we’ve seen that in previous expeditions farther to the south. At the same time, the warmth increases the incidence of fire. Fire strongly favors the larch. By enriching the soil and removing competing underbrush it helps the larch regenerate. And old larch trees are fire-resistant, so they don’t necessarily die. So fire keeps the southern species, which are not fire-adapted, in check. It’s an interesting tug of war here, between species encroachment from climate change and fire.

It is also very interesting to see how the rivers affect the permafrost. River water is warm, so it heats the soil of the riverbank, melting the permafrost. Although larch roots are usually shallow, when they get the chance the tree will root more deeply. And that means they grow much taller, too. So near the river we have stands of tall larch, while just a few feet away the permafrost is intact, and the trees grow markedly smaller.

This is an amazing area. There is just so much we need to learn.


Large trees often survive understory fires, but their brush with the flames leaves a mark, like the dark ring embedded in this tree trunk. Scientists can date the fire by taking a slice of the trunk and counting growth rings. In many areas of Siberia, trees have survived many fires, each leaving a mark. These marks tell the tale of fire frequency in the area and how it has changed over time.