Siberia 2008


Comparison of young and old larch trees.

Forest ecologist Slava Kharuk called this a picture of tyranny and freedom. The trees are growing at the top of a mountain in the Siberian Traps. The climate at the location is near the limit of the coldest temperatures larch trees can tolerate. The smaller of the two trees in the foreground is many centuries older than the bigger tree.

Dr. Kharuk describes the tree on the right as living under the tyranny of colder climates of the past. It grew slowly: its form is twisted, its needles are sparse, the diameter is small, and it is not very tall. The younger tree has grown, he says, under the freedom of recent, milder climates. It is shooting up tall, straight, and full. It grows a relatively large amount each year, which results in a larger trunk diameter. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of larch cones.

In the cold Siberian climate, trees reproduce slowly. These larch cones document three years of growth. The lightest, reddish cones in the foreground are this year’s cones, which are forming and have not yet released their seeds. The medium-brown cones are from last year’s growth. The darkest brown cones are fully open and spent, yet still hang tenaciously on the tree. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

Photograph of Jon Ranson on a steep slope in the Siberian Traps.

Jon Ranson stands on the mountainside next to the Kotuykan River. To collect forest observations, the scientists had to work their way up and down mountains like this each day. The slopes were steep and covered with scree—piles of loose, broken rock. Because satellite signals for phone and Internet communication can be elusive, Dr. Ranson carried his equipment—camera, computer, satellite phone, and data terminal—wherever he went.

Because the equipment is so bulky and heavy, and because he carried it endlessly, Dr. Kharuk began calling him “Sisyphus,” in honor of the mythological king who was punished by the gods by with a curse. Each day, for eternity, Sisyphus had to roll a big boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again. Dr. Ranson’s efforts however, had a reward; it made all communication from the field possible. (Photograph courtesy Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of siberian pines growing on an outcrop.

On July 18, the scientists spotted Siberian Pines growing on the top of a rock column next to the Kotuykan River. Most of the trees in the photo are light-colored Larch, with a wide-based, triangular form. But in the foreground, at least three columnar, dark-green Siberian Pines can be seen near the edge of the outcrop.

This region has been considered too far north and the climate too harsh for the growth of Siberian Pine, traditionally a more southern species. The outcrop may have provided an unusually warm microclimate, or the long-term warming trend in the region may be permitting the northward migration of this warmer-weather. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of cliffs and a talus slope in the Siberian Traps.

The Siberian Traps Mountains were created about 250 million years ago by massive volcanic eruptions. The lava was basaltic and covered the land, forming flat plains as it cooled. Over the millennia, weathering has caused the basalt to crack and wear, forming flat-topped mountains known as the Siberian Traps. Some rock resists the weathering, creating spires and columns of rock. As rock falls from the mountaintop, it accumulates at the base as piles of loose debris. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

  Photograph of siberian tundra and reindeer antlers.

At the top of the tallest mountains, the boreal forest or taiga, gives way to the tundra, relatively barren, grassy plains. It is the tundra that provides food for the reindeer (caribou) herds. The Taymir region is home to the largest wild reindeer herd on Earth, with an estimated one million animals. They migrate northward in the early spring, following the emerging plants, then return southward in the fall to overwinter in slightly warmer climates. Reindeer antlers are visible in the foreground and are scattered over the tundra. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)

Photograph of Mukhtar Naurzbaev and fish.

Mukhtar Naurzbaev set up nets at the confluence of the Kotuy and Kotuykan Rivers on July 19. By evening, he caught five fish: about thirty pounds of meat for dinner and a few meals to come. He has placed a book of matches on one fish as a reference for size. In Arctic summer, the sun never sets. This photo was taken at late evening in the land of the midnight sun. The caribou antlers behind Dr. Naurzbaev were found at the top of the mountain across the river, in open tundra, and carried back to camp. (Photograph by Jon Ranson.)