Field notes from northeastern Siberia

By Research Assistant Ludda Ludwig.

It requires several days of flying to get to our field sites in northeastern Siberia. We met as whole group for the first time in the JFK airport. For most of us, this was not our first trip to the Kolyma River. From JFK to Moscow is about 10 hours of flying. After a quick connection, it’s a 9 hour flight to Yakutsk. Yakutsk is the largest city in the world on continuous permafrost, and it is large. It’s the hub for reaching all of the towns and other cities in Siberia and home to about 200,000 people. I’d never spent more than a couple days in Yakutsk in past years and never explored too far from the airport. But this summer our hotel was across town, and the immensity of the city finally settled on me. Two hundred thousand people may not seem very large compared to many places in the States, but in Yakutsk every building and house lies on top of permafrost. That means no underground plumbing for 200,000 people, and many buildings are built on stilts to avoid warming and collapsing the ground beneath them. The streets are rippled with frost heaves and lined with rows of piping that crisscrosses around corners and arches over intersections. We arrived at the beginning of the 2016 Children of Asia summer games, and the city was packed. Security was high; we had fingerprints scanned and had to produce plane ticket stubs along with immigration papers at the hotel. Alcohol was banned city-wide for the duration of the games, and there was a sign our hotel door exclaiming, “no dogs, no alcohol, no ice cream.”

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map by Greg Fiske

We flew to Chokurdakh, about 5 hours north of Yakutsk. Chokurdakh was cold and windy. When the plane landed we waited our turn to have passports and letters of invitation examined. I was staring idly out of the window, wondering where the airport was. The only building in sight was actually just a couple shipping containers, with some soldiers standing by. A shabby husky wandered up to be petted by the soldiers. As I watched, the dog climbed up the narrow stepladder on wheels that had been set against the airplane door. He disappeared inside the plane, then came out a few minutes later with our flight attendant who proceeded to lay out an airplane meal for the dog on the tarmac. We grabbed our luggage and walked down the tarmac to find a collection of vehicles gathered and people waiting for their friends and relatives from the flight. Sasha Kholodov, our collaborator from the University of Alaska, had made all of our logistical arrangements in Chokurdakh. There was no taxi service, but we were greeted at the airport by the ambulance. We piled in the back next to the stretcher with our luggage and were shuttled to an apartment that would be our home for the next couple days. Delicious fish soup was waiting for us, and posters of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez in Russian hung on the walls. The ambulance-taxi picked us up the next morning, this time with a boat trailer attached to the back. We were taken to the river, and, Sasha drove us in a small motor boat to our field site a couple of hours away. While we got to work, the weather turned and we huddled down under rain and sleet, trying to keep our samples from blowing away and trading gloves back and forth to keep fingers working. The boat ride back should have been freezing cold, but Sue (Dr. Susan Natali) and I burrowed under a couple of caribou pelts in the stern. We flew back to Yakutsk the next day, then on to Cherskiy, our final destination, about 6 hours to the northeast.

The last time I made this trip was three years ago as a student with The Polaris Project. I had been to Cherskiy three summers in a row, and it had begun to feel like home. The Northeast Science Station isn’t like other research facilities or field stations. It’s privately owned and operated by the Zimov and Davidov families. Sergey Zimov, the patriarch, founded the research station years ago. During my time there as a student, his son Nikita was running things. Nikita and his wife Nastya are scientists. They are also the managers, handle the logistics, and raise three daughters at the station.

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photo by Greg Fiske

I slept on the barge anchored just off shore. In the morning I made the hike across gangplanks balanced between sunken shipping crates to get ashore, then up boardwalk stairs to the top of the bluffs. The road along the bluffs yields the best views of the flood plain, with fields of cotton grass and Rhodinka Mountain in the distance. Orbita sits at the end of the road at the top of the hill. It’s a large building with 3-foot thick concrete walls and a 30-foot satellite dish on the roof; hence the name. Orbita is home to several other scientists in our group, as well as the dining room and some lab spaces. We eat all of our meals together, not just our group of researchers, but also any other researchers and guests at the station, as well as Nikita’s family.

Not long after arriving, we were off on another trip to collect data. North of the station in the tundra there are three boreholes where permafrost temperatures are being monitored. We set out to measure the vegetation community abundance and biomass, soil organic layer thickness, thaw depth, and carbon content. Our hope is to be able to show how vegetation and landscape characteristics affect permafrost vulnerability. The boat ride north is only a few hours in good weather. Nikita feels that everyone should have a chance to see the tundra, even though getting there and back can sometimes be uncertain. A group of about a dozen scientists went for a day to sample two of our sites. Late in the evening everyone but Sasha, Sergey, two students and me headed back to Cherskiy. The five of us intended to stay the night in a fishing camp, then drive to the third site and sample it the next day before coming home. A few hours later, we were sitting out on the beach in the wind trying to avoid mosquitos, when one of their boats came back. They then grabbed our boat, and took both of them. We were stuck at a fishing camp in the tundra with no way back.

The next morning there was still no boat. With no boat, we also couldn’t get to our field site. Finally, that evening a boat showed up for us. It turns out that one boat had sprung a leak and they’d abandoned it, taking our boat in order to get everyone else home the night before. We picked up the leaky boat where it had been beached downriver. For an hour or so, the Russians huddled over the leaky boat. At first I thought they were trying to fix it, but they were actually trying to hot-wire it. When Nikita had driven off the previous day, he’d taken the keys with him. Hot wiring didn’t work, but that was no major impediment. Instead Sergey lashed the leaky boat on top of our good one, and we were able to drive slowly down river at a precarious tilt. A few hours later, as we were pulling into the tributary where our field site was located, Nikita came roaring up in a third boat and carrying the missing keys. We sped to our site and began working around 11 that night. We finished a couple hours later, and Nikita started a bonfire to heat water and roast moose-meatballs. He poured himself a cup of tea, but the mosquitos were so bad that within a minute the cup was filled with dozens of drowned insects. We got home at 3:30 in the morning.

Those intense days in the field were followed by several days of calm lab work. We brought back square pieces of the tundra to harvest plants from. Each plot had to have vegetation clipped, sorted to species, and dried and weighed. It’s the sorting part that takes the most time. Some plants are easy, like birch shrubs and sedges. But the surface of tundra is a mixture of mosses and lichen tangled together, with tiny little shrubs and other plants concealed inside. It takes hours of several people plucking to finish one plot. After plucking for several days in a row, my worldview changed. More specifically, I realized there was a whole world on this tiny scale I had never noticed before. Some mosses grew in thickets of one species, others lived interspersed, and I could find more than six distinct species occupying a square centimeter of ground. The lichen and moss didn’t just tangle together; they grew together, physically sticking to one another. One lichen in particular always frustrated us: the speckled pelt lichen. We originally thought it to be a liverwort, because of the way it grew in green leathery lobes spread out across the surface. The speckled pelt ranged from small, fingernail sized lichen to pieces as big as my hand. Their undersides were one and all encrusted with vegetation; mosses, other lichen, even shrubs. Each plant had to be peeled off with tweezers. Sometimes the speckled pelt would glue plants to its underside, then wrap itself into a bundle.

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photo by Stan Skotnicki

My favorite work of our trip was drilling for permafrost. While I grew to love plucking moss, it can’t compare to drilling. The best analogy I have is that drilling frozen soil cores is like unwrapping presents. It is hard enough to get to the sites that anticipation builds up. It can be difficult to find our sites especially in really dense larch stands. Hauling the drilling equipment out there is another challenge. We have a meter long hollow tube with carbide teeth, a meter long handle on essentially a plunger used for retrieving cores from the hole, the motor-head, a shovel, and other soil augers. Once we find the site we dig out the thawed ground measuring depths of layers as we go. Sometimes it’s only a foot deep until we reach frozen ground. In low larch density stands the ground was thawed almost 3 feet deep. When our soil pit is ready, two people set the assembled drill in the hole and power it up. I’d drilled on an earlier research trip in Alaska this June, where our drill cut into permafrost like a hot knife in butter. But these sites were brutal. We dulled and chipped two sets of teeth before we got through them all. In order to get deeper, we often had to lift the drill and slam it over and over to the ground. Several times it froze into the ground, and we had to frantically yank it back and forth to break it free before we lost the whole rig. As the drill digs deeper, we move from standing, to hunch-backed, to squatting above the ground holding onto the motor-head, yanking it up and slamming down. It’s a workout. For reasons we were never able to explain, the drill resisted being turned off. It was as though it had a mind of its own. It would spin even without a hand on the throttle. Not only that, but after the off switch was flicked, it would continue to rotate and rumble for another minute or so. It blew gas and exhaust so profusely that we became light-headed and had to take turns facing the exhaust stream. The gas tank itself had a minor issue. At some point, the cap got a hole in it and was plugged with a stick. That might seem like a dubious fix, but it never failed us.

Once we get the drill as deep as possible, we pull it out, power it down, and plunge out the frozen core. The act of drilling is an adrenaline rush, but looking at the core as it comes it is the most exciting. One person holds the drill tube in her arms, and another pushes on the plunger. This can be difficult, especially if the core starts to freeze inside the tube. My job was to wait at the end and catch it as the core came out. I often felt like a midwife assisting in a permafrost birth. The process is exhausting, sweaty, and everyone gets covered in mud. As the pieces of the core come out, I place them on tinfoil sheets and clean the drill tailings from the surface of the core. I can see all of the ice structures buried below ground as I wipe away the mud. Sometimes it’s layers of lens ice. Sometimes it’s a band of horizontal bedded ice a few centimeters thick. It can be so clear you see a rainbow of light inside. Or you can see globules of suspended soil that seem to be floating in the ice. A few cores were just massive chunks of pure ice. I measure the cores, then swaddle them in tinfoil and place them inside a cooler.

It took two days to finish the drilling, and two more days back in the lab to process the cores. I moved the equipment I needed below the soil lab. The garage down there is cut into the side of the hill and the surrounding permafrost keeps it cold. In the coldest part, way back behind a heavy sheet under a sloping ceiling, I made a lab bench out of some plywood and a couple cases of beer. I set up a scale for weighing, various cups and tins to place subsamples into, and a heat lamp to help thaw the cores. It wasn’t actually a heat lamp, but rather a large light bulb on the end of a cable that used to be in the lab above, until it got so hot that it set the wall on fire. After that we tried hanging it from a metal pole, but it melted the plastic sheathing around its own cord. I turned it on briefly to thaw cores just enough to bring out the ice structures so I could describe them before subsampling the core. Subsampling involved using a hammer and chisel and pounding it into pieces. This was another reason I was in the basement; the plant pluckers didn’t want to have mud and ice chips flinging about.

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photo by Stan Stoknicki

With about a week of the trip remaining, we began to plan on how to wrap up our fieldwork and lab work in time. We had numerous soils drying in ovens or combusting in furnaces that needed to be weighed. We had tree cores to sand, roots to pluck, and nutrients to extract. Even so, the list of tasks seemed doable. That night an unusually severe thunderstorm hit Cherskiy. Thunder and lightening are not common there. Such a storm might be typical for Tennessee, but it was the worst storm in Nikita’s lifetime. At first we ran out in the pouring rain and laughed at the silliness of it. Then lightening started falling every few seconds, and close by. Around midnight lightening hit something vital and the power went out. Most of the electronics without surge protection were fried. The most tragic losses were the internet router and the coffee machine. We were without power the next day. The day after, Nikita got several generators running with enough juice to power our equipment. The nearby power station had been struck by lightening and part of it blew up, and it took 4 days until we were back on the grid. Despite this hiccup, we got everything done.

On our last day, we gathered at the Cherskiy airport, repacking our equipment, trying to get below the weight limit, as we waited to board the plane. It was a completely full flight. We took off on schedule, but two hours into the flight we started to lose altitude. There was no announcement in Russian let alone English, but we were definitely going down. At first I thought maybe it was an adjustment to avoid turbulence, but we kept going down. Eventually everyone noticed something wasn’t right. We were nowhere near Yakutsk. I thought maybe we had turned around and gone back to Cherskiy, but as we cleared the clouds we could see that nothing was familiar. We landed in a town I had never been to, and I still don’t know the name of it. With no Russian speakers in our group, we had no way to arrange transportation, get a hotel, or figure out what was going on. If it was a problem with the plane, it could be days before another flight. We were lucky to find an English speaker in the airport, who explained that the plane had stopped for an emergency refuel. This was probably the best explanation we could have hoped for, and we were back in the air after only a couple of hours.

Every leg of the trip home had some sort of disaster; tickets were mysteriously canceled with no notice, flights were canceled because of weather, and there was some food poisoning on our 10-hour flight from Moscow. By this point, however, we had been through enough strange, difficult, and dangerous circumstances together that we could roll with any punches. We all got back home eventually, with samples in tow. We returned shortly before the deadline to submit abstracts to present research at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, and we spent time in the air trying to summarize our work from the past month into a paragraph. At this early stage, we have just a sneak peek at what our data are showing us. The story won’t be finished until we reunite in San Francisco in December to present our work at AGU.

Map by Greg Fiske. Photos by Stan Stoknicki.