Siberia 2008

July 25

From Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia 09:10 PM USZ6S (09:10 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Krasnoyark
  • Clear, sunny
  • High: 72 degree F
  • Low: 52 degrees F
  • Humidity: 68%
  • Pressure: 30.1 in Hg
  • Wind: 4 mph variable

From Dr. Ranson

We’re in Krasnoyarsk now—no longer in the wilderness and no longer above the Arctic Circle. This is the third largest city in Siberia, with a population of just over 900,000. To put that in perspective, that’s a bit less than the size of the caribou herd in the Taymyrskiy Region.

It’s nice to have the amenities that civilization brings, especially being free to make a phone call or hook up to internet without hanging off the side of a mountain! But there is an adjustment to be made. After our time out camping, I’m finding it hard to get used to a real bed. The first night it felt good to snuggle into a mattress—but I woke up with every muscle in my body aching. I guess my body liked hard rocks better!

I watched television last night for the first times in weeks. I came across an American comedy show: “Scrubs”! It was like finding an old friend. It was all dubbed in Russian, of course, so I couldn’t understand a word. But it was hysterical, anyway. The voices of the characters were priceless—to hear Ted, the sad-sack attorney, speaking in a high-pitched Russian whine was just too funny! I guess comedy needs little translation.

Today we’ll work at the Sukachev Institute of Forests. I’ll have a chance to look at some data and to do some work on a scientific paper with Dr. Kharuk. Then it will be early to bed, and very, very early to rise. Tomorrow, Saturday, we’ll begin our journey home. We’ll arrive at our home airport on Saturday night. No, that’s not just a few hours flight, as it seems. We lose twelve hours coming home, so it’s 26 hours of travel.

This has been an exhausting but rewarding science adventure. The whole team worked very well together, with the Russians and Americans helping each other and enjoying each other’s company. The two new members of the team, Ross and Muhktar, became good friends during the two weeks on the river.

When we come to the field we work intensely to gather a lot of very valuable data. From space we can gather a huge amount of data to review, but there is always a question of how accurate that data may be under these extreme conditions. In the field we can touch and measure only a relatively small amount of forest, but it’s essential work. This is how we learn to better understand and use our satellites and models—and learn how to improve the instruments, too.

As we explored this extremely harsh northern land, I was once again impressed with how hardy and tenacious life is. Just about everywhere something could grow, it did. The summer is so very short, but in that time life just explodes; there were flowers and greenery everywhere.

We saw the effect of this harsh climate on the form and growth of the forest. We saw trees that had been killed yet would not decompose, due to the extreme cold. We saw trees that had been injured but refused to die, sending up new shoots from old stumps. We saw trees with vigorous, upright growth due to the recent warm conditions next to bent and ancient trees that have grown in harsher, colder times. And we saw trees growing above the traditional tree line—more northerly and at higher elevations than the recent range of the species. We saw effects of the cooling during the so-called Little Ice Age and warming from recent times. Through it all, the Larch forest retreats and advances. In the area we studied, it appears that the forest has now expanded beyond earlier recorded limits.

  Photograph of of dead larch trees in Siberia.

You know, it is really so very, very essential that this ground work gets done. Not just for my own studies or for the studies of the members of this expedition. But there is so much to learn, so much that is critical to life on Earth—to our lives and to the lives of generations to come.

There is always a need for more data and better data. There is a critical need for more people to get into science and do this type of work. Our team is small and we touch only a small bit of forest here. There is so much more to do.

I’d really like to emphasize, especially to the younger folks, that science is a living, exciting, and important career. Yes, scientists spend a lot of time working with papers and mathematics and meetings in conference rooms. Yeah, if you want to do science, you’ve got to study hard and make the grade. It’s hard work.

But, for those willing to do it, science offers true adventure—both intellectually and hands-on. You can explore anything you want, anywhere in the world—or in the universe. And your results can be extremely important. Scientists commonly uncover information that helps us change the way we think about the world. From time to time, scientists have uncovered information that has changed the world.


The harsh climate of Siberia is a challenging one for Larch trees. The photo shows the fates of several trees. A tree without bark or branches leans across the center of the photo. This tree died centuries ago, but the frigid climate has kept it from decaying. In the foreground, a tree that broke at the trunk and toppled managed to survive: a side branch grew into a vigorous new tree. In front and to the right of the “reborn” tree is a small dead tree that still has branches and bark. It is an ancient tree that died recently. In its last years, it put energy into making seed. Pinecones from the previous two years still cling to its branches. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of Ross Nelson, Guoqing Sun, and Paul Montesano holding reindeer antlers.

I’ve been asked if I’m coming back to Siberia again next year. Right now, I don’t know. We sometimes joke that science expeditions must be sort of like giving birth. I’ve been told that after such an intense experience that many women swear, right there in the delivery room, that they are done, forever. But then, soon, they’re fantasizing about another new baby.

Right now I’m tired; it’s been intense and exhausting. Right now I’m focused on getting home and attending to the new data we’ve gathered. Right now I just can’t imagine going back to that river again. But give me a few months. Or a few weeks. I’ll make a bet that I’ll be looking over maps and planning the next trip to Siberia before too long.


Ross Nelson, Guoqing Sun, and Paul Montesano holding reindeer antlers. They found these antlers on the tundra at the top of a mountain, carried them all day, then brought them back to camp strapped on the bow of the boat. To many Russians, the reindeer is a symbol for wanderers, or nomads—a meaningful souvenir for these three scientists, who have wandered a half-world away from their homes in search of knowledge. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)