Siberia 2008

July 18–20

From Taymyrskiy Region, Siberia 11:57 PM USZ6S (11:57 AM EDT)
  • Weather for Khatanga, nearest city
  • Partly Cloudy
  • High: 68 degree F
  • Low: 50 degrees F
  • Humidity 63%
  • Pressure: 29.88 in Hg
  • Wind: 0
  • Visibility: 6 miles

From Dr. Ranson

It’s midnight at the oasis here. I’m in my tent, surrounded by a hoard of mosquitoes all waiting for a drink. Lucky for me they are all outside, so they will have to stay thirsty.

This was a travel day [July 20]. Even though we have to tear down and set up the entire camp, we consider travel days “easy” days, because we do get to sit down for a few hours while we’re in the boats. We needed to find a large, flat site for tonight because this will be our last camp. Two days from now we will have a helicopter come pick us up from here.

We found a good spot at the top of one of these flat-topped mountains. It’s a little climb from the river, where we are cooking, to the camp. But it’s worth it. The top of this mountain has been cut by the Kotuy River, so there’s a spectacular drop off—about 100 feet down—not too far from our camp. The rocks up here are covered with a bit of grass, so it should be comfortable sleeping.

We got into camp early, about 7 p.m. When we got here, Slava said there might be a good fishing spot nearby and thought we should try to catch something for dinner. The spot was good: Slava caught several really nice fish. And I hooked “Bubba.”

I hadn’t had much luck using the small silver spoons that had netted me so many fish upriver. So I broke out a “muskie-killer”—a lure with giant hooks and a greenish skirt. It was huge and new. A fish store near my home had suggested it; I figured just because it was so expensive!

Well, I tossed it about twice, then on the next cast I got a fantastic strike. It was clearly far too much fish for my 10 pound test line, but I managed to play it just fine for quite awhile. Then it leapt from the water and twisted sideways—what a huge fish! Slava thought so too; he said it must weigh about 20 pounds!

I guess the fish didn’t like the way we looked, because when it hit the water it took off straight downstream. My drag was whining as the line went out. I had been teetering on loose rocks on an embankment, while playing the fish, but now I needed to adjust my footing—and I slipped. The rod tip flipped up and I felt the line snap. My giant fish was gone.

Needless to say, I spoke some fine American slang, sitting there on the bank. Also needless to say, fisherman can’t walk away when they spot a Big One. There are rumors of truly giant fish—taimen over 100 pounds—in the Kotuy River, so mine might have actually been a “Small One!”So we fished until far too late, basking in the sunlight of the Siberian night. I didn’t come here to fish, so I can’t complain, but it would have been fun to have landed my Siberian “Bubba.”

Yesterday we worked in the field. Our measurement sites were at the top of a mountain but we were able to climb up the back side, so no big excitement, just steady going. We ate our standard sardine, cracker, and candy bar lunch perched on a cliff looking over the river. Just a wonderful sight. It’s interesting; we are seeing small patches of snow on the north side of the mountains. It’s too warm to snow on us, but too cold for all of the snow to have melted. It may stay here all summer.

  Photograph of cliffs above the Kotuy River.

We were able, at last, to go from the forest all the way upslope until we were in tundra. The forest trees became smaller and more sparse very quickly as we gained elevation. The tundra was interesting to see, no trees there, but we did see a lot of caribou skulls and antlers. Some of the guys thought these were fantastic—so fantastic that they carried them all day long and brought them into camp. I’m curious to see if they try to get them on the airplanes going home.

Slava has been working hard on several studies. Today was a really good day for him. I think he should have a chance to talk about his side of things.

From Dr. Slava Kharuk:

We were working today on looking at the effect of changes in climate on the growth of trees. We went up a mountain where there were very old, dead trees. These “fossil trees” are ancient. They died in the 13th or 14th century, in the time of the Little Ice Age. Before that, they were growing at the edge of their territory. They were maybe 200 – 400 years old (yet still very small from the hard climate) when the climate got too cold, and they died.


A nice spot for lunch, overlooking the Kotuy River. The mountains, the Siberian Traps, were formed from basaltic lava flows during massive eruptions about 250 million years ago. The freeze/thaw cycle cracks and crumbles the rocks. The weather and the river have eroded the mountains into spectacular formations and sheer drop-offs. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of fossil trees in Siberia.

These fossil trees don’t decompose because it is so cold here, but they have fallen over in the last few hundred years. All around them now are younger trees, green and tall. These young trees are evidence that the climate has warmed a lot, so that now conditions will allow trees to grow here again. The young trees are now growing further upslope than the old tree line. That means that this area is warmer now that it was in the warm time before the Little Ice Age.

The climate has changed many times in this area. Once, the climate was much warmer. There were trees growing all the way to the Arctic Sea. But then it got cold and those trees died off. Since then, there have been waves of warmth and waves of cold. Now we see warming that lets trees grow where they haven’t grown for a long, long time. If this warming continues, we may again see trees growing all the way to the Arctic Sea.


Forest ecologist Slava Kharuk called this a photo of Siberia’s “bones and flesh.” The “bones” are the skeletons of fossil trees that died prior to the extremely frigid climate of the Little Ice Age, during the 13th of 14th century. Although they died hundreds of years ago, the frigid climate has prevented them from decaying.

The “flesh” is the new trees that are colonizing the area as the climate warms. These trees are growing far above the “fossil” tree line, which is evidence that the current warming trend is very strong. Scientists will use data on the ages of both old and new trees—the bones and flesh—to create a timeline of climate change in this part of Siberia. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)