The Meghna River and its tributaries in NE Bangladesh are very muddy. They carry a lot of water in this very rainy area of many haors, ponds and marshes. The largest is the inland lake that forms every summer. However, as we discovered, the muddy sediment is rich in organic matter and we could not get good data. We only were able to image south of the lake after most of the sediment had been deposited. Despite the problems, we remained optimistic because the Jamuna, as the Brahmaputra is known in Bangladesh, carries mostly sand and silt. However, time is growing short and there is no time to collected data over the entire length of the river. The most important area is in the north, so we must rush upstream to have sufficient time to collect seismics there.
I rejoined the Kokilmoni in Mawa Ghat (port) and the next morning headed up the Padma to the Jamuna. To navigate these rivers, you need a pilot to steer through the many sand bars and channels. That means we sail from pilot station to pilot station and are less free to stop where we want. Yesterday was Mawa to Aricha, at the confluence where the Ganges and Jamuna join to form the Padma. Making good time, we decide to make use of it be deploying the seismic system. This was the test – can we collect good data in the large sandy rivers? Can we deploy and retrieve the streamer in the strong current? The boat slowed to the point of sliding backwards in the current and deployed the equipment. Initially, there was some electrical noise that obscured everything, but we found the source and unplugged it. For the first few minutes we were all squinting at the screen to see if we could see reflectors. Uncertain at first, it soon became clear that we were getting good data and a saw a strong reflector that probably marks the river level at the height of the last ice age when sea level was 120m lower. Success. After an hour we pulled in the streamer and headed to port, satisfied that that we could image here and anxious to head north as quickly as possible.
Today, we entered the Jamuna and are heading north to Sirajganj, just north of the only bridge over the river. Brahmaputra means Son of Brahma, an appropriate name for this mighty river. The river looks different from when I was hear at low water. Then there was exposed sand on the banks of all the islands. More sand then I had ever seen. Now it is all submerged and just the island tops and vegetation are seen. The sand is all below water and shifting, which is why we need pilots. We have made very good time and have only hit one sand bank. Enough time that we are now collecting more data and just passed under the bridge, which has many published borings drilled before construction. These wells will let us correlate our reflectors to actual rocks.
Since we were unable to get the Kokilmoni up to the border on the largest river coming from the Plateau with imaging still difficult, we decided to pull the gear and head downstream on over to the Brahmaputra. We steamed quickly downstream to the one region where we got good imaging. This time we took different channels and once again saw the buried folds at the front to the subduction zone. With two crossing, we will be able to confirm their direction. With this good news, we compromised between the scientists wanting to always continue collecting data and the crew needing to rest. Humayun found a small port off of Araihazar, where I first worked in Bangladesh with the Columbia University Arsenic project and met Steve.
This marks the end of Steve’s time on the cruise. In preparation for his leaving, we held endless discussions on the rest of the cruise, taking into account the need for pilots to navigate the everchanging Padma and Jamuna (Brahmaputra). Humayun, Selim and Babu are also leaving, but a new geologist met us and I will bring Saddam Hossain (no relation) In this small port on the Meghna River east of Dhaka, we had to wade to shore from the launch. Of course, the ride to Dhaka was slowed by heavy traffic, and we arrived at 12:30AM.
The Ambala Hotel felt like home, as we always use it when in Dhaka. Then a whirlwind day of meetings, cups of tea and traffic. The high point was when someone mistook me for a Bangaldeshi – until I opened my mouth. The morning meetings filled through the afternoon, consuming any hope for free time. All meetings in Dhaka seem to be time approximate due to traffic. Then we juggled two dinner invitations by doing appetizers at one and dinner at the other. The appetizers were so extensive, I insisted Steve join me to help eat them. Still, everything went very well, except by the morning Steve was gone, off on his 4:30AM flight home.
During the day I learned that the ship would only make it as far as Chandpur, where they had to arrange for a pilot. Too far for me to join them in the morning. I had to wait until they arrive at their next stop, Mawa Ghat, at the end of the day to switch pilots. Mawa is on the Padma – the name for the mighty combined Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. I spent a quiet day in Dhaka working with Humayun and Dhiman, then picked up liquid supplies to keep the scientists happy, and finally the long traffic-filled drive to Mawa. The opposition party has called for a hartal – a general strike – tomorrow, so traffic was extra heavy as there will be no driving in Dhaka tomorrow. Now I am back on the ship hearing their stories of the trip up the Padma.
Maintenance on the mail server starting Tuesday, September 20, ~1:30 AM did not
go as planned. The email directory service was damaged and had to be restored.
From our return to Jamalganj, we headed east searching for a river to carry us up to the Indian border across the Dauki Fault. Along the way, we celebrated Steve Goodbred’s birthday. However, even the biggest of the rivers proved too shallow for our boat. We switched to the launch, taking the CHIRP profiler along.
As Nano Seeber described this excursion: “We are navigating the big rivers on the big delta. The seismic reflection profiles are disappointing, but the surroundings are completely captivating. Yesterday we pushed upstream as far as we could on the big boat, then we hopped on our launch and continued north to the Indian border. It rained progressively heavier as we approached the border and the ‘abode of the clouds’ (= Meghalaya). We were one of the many boats traveling the river. Our boat sported a bunch of wet scientists dripping at their noses and their telephoto lenses. The others carry mostly rocks, but some deliver children to school and people to market, an altogether happy scene. Thin long dark wooden boats covered with neatly colored people, vivacious eyes, and umbrellas leaning against the driving rain. The rocks are coming down to build Dhaka city, this fat ugly monster insatiable for people and rocks, getting fatter by the day. As the monsoon feeds the short but energetic rivers of Meghalaya, hard boulders from the ancient rocks
of the Shillong Plateau pour down with the white waters onto the plains and across the border into Bangladesh. There, they are met by an army of small gnarly young people fully engaged into a rock-feeding frenzy. They manage to take from the river so much of its solid deliverance that they alter the morphology. This anthropo-geological action is engineered with technologies dating back to the Egyptians — this is indeed the place to learn how the pyramids were built! We had tea with them, crouching under a tarp stretched about four feet from the sandy bar one foot above the river: a thin layer of human bodies sandwiched between ground water and air-water. We were so crowded under that tarp that light had a hard time getting to the tea kettle at the heart of the circle, but the tea tasted great!”
The tarp-covered restaurant is known locally as an “Italian Hotel” because crouching under the low tarp, you usually sit on a brick, “it” in Bangla. Here, close to the border, we got as good a look at the Shillong Plateau, one of the wettest places on earth, as the downpour would allow. The home of the clouds is appropriately named. In the pouring rain, the closest we got to the Shillong Plateau was a brief stop at a rock crushing facility, where stones of every kind from the plateau were closely examined.
After this wet interlude, we decided to spend our time elsewhere. We are heading south to the one area on the Meghna River where we got good seismic imaging and then to the big rivers, including the mighty Brahmaputra itself.
We have been sailing along collecting data, but so far the data quality is poor due to shallow gas in the sediments. We thought we might have some problems with gas, but the problem is more widespread than we expected. We are now out of the inland summer lake where we met the boat and will soon try profiles up the Indian border where we expect a buried fault. We may pick up a local pilot that knows which ones are navigable. We hope the environment is different enough that we can get good data. A Meanwhile we have been changing the sound source to try to get better data. Depending how it goes, we will continue around here or head to a different part of the country. In contrast, the ship and company is great. Working primarily daylight hours with systems are running flawlessly, we do not have formal watches. It is only for deploying the seismic data and retrieving it that all hands are needed. A small group takes care of maintaining the running equipment. Voldhard Spiess keeps trying different processing to improve the data. We start up at 6:00 AM and continue until around sunset or reaching our target stopping town. During the day, we are continuously having discussions on the science, with each of us bringing different expertise. The data, methods to improve it and where to go are ongoing subjects of discussions. With Steve and Humayun here, we can also plan for future parts of the project.
Last night, we stopped in Jamalganj, where I helped install one of our compaction meters in February. Back then, the river was probably 15 feet lower. A large group came ashore with Humayun and myself to see the site. It is my third time in this now familiar town. Waiting for Aziz, the caretaker, we attracted a large crowd. Walking to the site as darkness fell (and pretty quickly in the tropics), we discovered Aziz had brought a crescent wrench rather than a pipe wrench. With typical Bangladeshi ingenuity, glancing blows with a hammer loosened the cap on the pipe and we were able to retrieve the piezometers and their water level data. We then visited the former jail cell with its massive iron bars where the GPS receiver is and Humayun downloaded that data. Shaheen, Aziz’s son was away in Dhaka, but we retrieved the laptop with the compaction data and copied it, too. The biggest change in the site is that instead of mud everywhere, the site was now covered in green. A small bright spot of success in the trip.
After a great field season last winter, we had an extraordinary opportunity this fall, a research cruise on the Bangladeshi rivers collecting geophysical data. We are using the same technique that Lamont uses on its ship, the R/V Marcus Langseth, but a mini version. The basic idea is to use sound waves from bursts of compressed air to bounce off the layers of sediment below the surface and to record it on a string of microphones towed behind the ship called a streamer. The difference is scale. While the Langseth can tow four 6-km long streamers, we have one 50-m streamer. Our source is similarly reduced. The system we are using, built by Bremen University in Germany, will only see a few hundred meters below the surface, but with great detail. The cruise is taking place on the M/V Kokilmoni, an 85-ft long boat built for tourist cruises of the Sundarban mangrove forest, home of the Bengal tiger.
While the Bremen group and a few of the Americans will stay on the entire 25-day cruise, the rest of us have the opportunity to join and leave the ship during the cruise, something not possible in the middle of the ocean. Due to other commitments and, in part, not wanting to be there for the inevitable problems at the beginning of the cruise like this, joined the ship today, over a week after the scheduled start (less than as week after the actual start). Nano Seeber, Rafael Almeida and myself left Lamont on Monday, Sept 12 and after a long set of flights arrived in Dhaka at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning. We dropped some equipment off at Dhaka University, picked up Humayun Akhter and a student and headed off to find the ship. This was not as easy as we thought. They were entering the area of the Sylhet Basin that floods every year and there were not too many places where car and boat. Talking while driving north, we came up with three places where we could meet. They past the first one hours before we could get the, but worked out a plan for number two, saving probably 5 more hours of driving to get to the third. We drove out to the meeting place on ever-smaller roads finally ending at a port on this vast inland lake. Using cell phone towers, the tall chimneys of brick factories that are now islands and a hospital ship, we finally located each other and they sent their small boat to pick up us. It brought Dhiman and Pritam as well, returning to Dhaka University with Babu, our driver.
Welcomed on board, we got underway following the markings of where the river channel is across the broad expanse of water. Patches of grass, the occasional tree, islands of homes and lines of telephone poles dot the area that will become fertile farmland again in a few months. I’ve known of the flooding worked on calculations about it, and heard stories, but this was the first time I saw it for myself. I’ve always been here in the cool, dry winter-early spring. It is truly amazing and filled with an amphibious population traveling by bus and rickshaw in winter and boat in summer.
By Neil Pederson
As discussed in the previous post, the first half of the field season would be the scientific highlight of the 2011 field season. While we had highlights later on, in terms of finding new stuff, that was it. We knew that would be a highlight because we had a fairly good idea of what was coming next. To our delight, we would be heading back to the small mountain village called Bugant. This is a delight because the family we stay with on trips to the northwestern Khentii Moutains are exemplary in terms of Mongolian generosity.
We knew that we would immediately not only be served fresh tea and plenty of candies and snacks upon our arrival, we also knew that no matter what time ae arrived we would be served a meal. We arrived at about 9 pm and, sure enough, by 9:45 we were fully into our meal.
As always, it was a fun and spirited meal. All the extended family came to visit with us and each other:
We looked forward to the next day’s field work because we were going to one of the most interesting forests we’ve seen in Mongolia – it was an intact, old-growth forest….
However, not all scientific fieldwork is full of exploration and discovery like those fueled by sawdust and mosquito wings. Sometimes, quite often actually, scientific research is monotonous. Even in the field. The work ahead, while in beautiful places, was akin to making the doughnuts. We had to go back to areas we had sampled before, install plots and just core whatever trees fall in those plots. There would be no bird-dogging or seeking out great old trees. What fell in our plots, randomly-located so that they best represented the average forest, ended up being our study trees. Ah, we are not complaining. It is just not as thrilling as the hunt. It feels almost industrial – industrial ecology.
We were a bit leery of this forest as well. When we last sampled in 2009, it turned out to be a cold and wet visit. 2011 turned out to be very much the same. In fact, it turned out to be wetter and colder. It definitely had us shivering in our sleeping bags.
We had expected to complete our work in the first day at the site pictured above. But, after a couple passing showers that were fairly heavy for Mongolia, the temperatures dropped quickly and, well, we started getting cold. We were prepared for this, but somehow this day got to us. We really started shivering and making mistakes. When you start making mistakes when you are cold and wet, that is a good sign to call things off. Not much good can come from continuing. What one can expect is potentially bad data, more mistakes and more mistakes that could become dangerous. So, we called it a day and went fishing.
OK, Baljaa went fishing. Specifically, he went wood fishing. It is a method commonly used to gather firewood in areas with little wood. As you can see, Baljaa, despite being a Mongolian cowboy with more than a hundred horses [he's a good catch, ladies!], struck out. Time to call in the pro:
As you can see, Baatarbileg is still the master!
What did we cook with this wood? Our clothes, of course:
Actually, the fire and wonderful soup for dinner warmed us up. I do not think the devil actually shivered in his sleeping bag.
The next day turned out to be sunny and we finished off this site. We did get one new discovery: a Mongolian lizard. It got so used to being held, or perhaps it was so hungry from the previous cool, wet day, it itself ‘fished’ for food while being held:
The next day found us heading back to the ‘cement patio’ site. This is a favorite site for us as we had a wonderful Mongolian cookout in 2009. What we had forgotten was how far back we had driven into the Khentii Mountains to find this site.
Talk about monotonous [and desperate...like the beginning of 2011, we were desperate in 2009 to find a goldmine site], we drove 20 km on the road below just to find this site. You can hear below how we had forgotten how far back we drove in 2009.
We hit the slopes as soon as we re-discovered the cement patio; it took about 3 hrs of driving to get to this spot. I had not been up this slope yet as I sampled a different slope in 2009. When Amy said it was steep, I really didn’t know what she meant. As you can see, the slope was nearly a 40% slope:
While in the midst of conducting this industrial ecology, the sky decided to open up again. However, the storm didn’t seem as serious as the prior day and we hunkered down for about 20 minutes. Sure enough, the storm passed as we completed most of our work at this site.
The views from this site are pretty spectacular.
Indeed, it is such a special forest that we will have a special post regarding the state and potential future of this part of the Khentii Mountains.
We headed down the mountain back to the patio and found an incredible patch of berries. There were two types of currants and one type of blueberry. It was delicious. In fact, as it was Chuka’s birthday (our other driver in 2009 and 2011), we gathered as much fruit as possible and re-created our 2009 cook out night to celebrate Chuka. It was a fantastic night until yet another thunderstorm crashed the party and sent us scurrying for the tents. All in all, it was a pretty great night.
There is not too much to report for now about this site. It is definitely another old-growth site that Amy has already written about. We saw some amazing specimens for the main conifer species in Bugant and hiked some cool ridges. We saw wolf and bear scat. We were lucky to spend time in that exceptional Mongolian Wilderness. Here are a couple more pictures.
We’ve realized that we have yet to document a bit of our day-to-day lives in the field. Below are some scenes from the valley we nick-named ’Xanadu’ (before we knew it’s proper name). We learned from the man who uses the valley as his winter pasture that it is called ‘West River Valley’. It is definitely a happy valley.
The valley is narrow and natural. You can see below how limited access is to this valley, save horses.
Below is one of the first views we got of the valley – it was a wonderful sight [and site!].
We settled into a patch of forest in the valley bottom. Can you spot our tarp hiding our belongings during the day?
here is our camp site:
in actuality, this really was the Xanadu for the flies!
here is a video of our happy camp site at night, in the Mongolian Wilderness
view to southern portion of our happy valley
By Neil Pederson
When embarking on research in Mongolia, though in all other situations, too, it is best to couch your disposition in two important mindsets: patience and persistence. Perhaps the best way to begin these journeys is to take on an almost Buddhistic mindset and not get too clingy to objects. It is best to let it come as it should. Of course it is easier to type that then to sit in a jeep for a few days and see nothing that warrants sampling like the below. Oh, it is beautiful, but not helpful for study.
It seems like every sampling trip here in Mongolia begins like 2011 did: searching for a goldmine site, but finding little of research value. It has happened so often that I have finaly learned to sit back and have some kind of faith that the trees will appear. This mindset finally paid off during the first leg of our field season. In fact, it paid off so well that by the last day, it seems our bodies were running on sawdust and mosquito wings.
Intellicast.com suggested the field season would be cool, nicely cool. A colleague in Mongolia came back from the field and reported that it would be one of the worst field seasons in terms of insects. So, as Murphy’s Law sort of goes, both expectations trended in the opposite direction as we would like.
After spending about a day and a half of looking for good sites, we finally got a lead through a village elder for potentially old forests. Most of that conversation is recorded below:
Listen to his accent. Can you pick out the word davaa? How about nars? [nars = Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris; davaa = mountain pass]
This is why we should listen to our elders – in the end, they are often correct. The key phrase is “in the end” because as we drove up into the steep and narrow valley he suggested, again, all we saw was this:
Even the drive back down valley held little promise. Baatar had noticed some rocky slopes that might have something good. But, from our perspective, the trees didn’t look as old as we needed [we are constantly on the search for 300-400+ yr old trees so we can learn what the long-term trends and patterns are in climate and ecology]. We decided it was worth a look and shortly after beginning our hike, we found a decent pine with 5-7 fire scars, “ok, this seems ok”.
We continued up the slope and found middle-aged trees (~150-200 yrs) with a few fire scars (4-6). It was fine, but not what we really hoped for.
We finally found a tree a little bit older and with 7+ fire scars. Like Pavlov’s dog, we started dreaming about rewards. We started racing upslope to find more of these trees. Along the way, we started noticing remnant wood – trees that likely died 50-100 yrs ago – that could help us extend our knowledge of fire history back to the 1700s, perhaps even the 1600s!
Having an extra crew member in Erdene, I became the bird-dog: “dog will hunt!” [for old, fire-scarred trees]
I went on ahead and started searching all slopes for old, fire-scarred trees. The slope and bedrock made the work fun. The heat, on the other hand, required rationing a bit on water. I finally treaded up a narrow ridge in hopes of finding more. While hiking this ‘knife-edge’, I kept coming back to the idea that I get paid to do this; I’m a lucky dog.
Perhaps the neatest thing I saw was a planking tree (you know this fad is really getting out of hand when a tree in northern Mongolia planks).
Towards the upper end of the ridge I came upon a couple trees that looked pretty good. I didn’t fully inspect them as I had been ‘out’ for an hour and didn’t hear the chainsaw behind me. I was concerned that I had gone too far ahead. I circled back and found our crew hunched over the saw where I left them an hour earlier. Seems some bad gas hampered the saw and Bayaraa and Erdene were on their way to becoming chainsaw technicians of the first order. They finally got the saw fired up after another 25 minutes and we headed upslope to collect a couple of samples from stumps near the false-peak.
It was now getting late in the day. I was sunburnt, it was hot, we were running low on water and food. Spirits had plunged a bit following the Chainsaw Repair Hour.
I showed Amy the two trees I had spotted on my camera’s small screen and mentioned they were a bit upslope. Our samples were not great at that point and the general feeling was that we should go for it.
We decided to walk halfway there, combine our food and have a small late-afternoon snack (bread, peanut butter, sardines, an apple and some water [but not all of it!]). The energy intake seemed to do the trick. Spirits came up as we walked the knife-edge.
Then, upon closer inspection, we knew that our patience and persistence paid off. Amy was the first to rush over.
And, why not rush? This site finally turned into the Goldmine we were looking for.
We quickly went to work scouring this little pocket of Mongolia for all that it might contain. Bayaraa went to work, retrieved some fine samples and showed off the A1 Sawyer that he is these days.
Again, no trees were killed in the collection of these samples.
Upon further inspection…
Everyone was thrilled. It was time to celebrate hardwork.
The lessons on topographic location, aspect, landform and a few tree characteristics paid off over the next few days as we located the Three Amigos and a Field of Onions.
The next day we headed across the valley and found more of the same. Younger, few scars lower on the slope, a goldmine of older trees and multiple-scarred trees further up slope. Probably the best thing from that day, beyond the other goldmine, were the valley views. The most surprising things were the pivot irrigation fields. The resurgence of the Mongolian agricultural industry has been impressive, as was indicted towards the end of this post from 2010. The presence of pivot irrigation confirms Mongolia’s commitment for food independence.
What drew us out of this goldmine was a peak to the east. It looked rugged and remote. We had high hopes for our next area of study.
We decided to head there immediately as day was falling. It took longer than expected and was nearly dark when we arrived in the new valley. It was indeed isolated and the grasses were tall, suggesting the valley was not heavily used. It was so nice that we jokingly called it Xanadu. We later learned this was someone’s Xanadu. A herdsmen stopped by our camp, we immediately gave him some tea. He was looking for his small herd of horses and told us this was his winter pasture, so it was his personal winter capitol. It must be lovely in the winter.
Of course, the joke was on us. As we finished putting up our tents, the mosquito horde came out. We layered and wrapped ourselves; our source was correct – this was about the worst mosquito season I have experienced in Mongolia. We dashed into our tents soon after dark.
This part of the post will be interrupted to convey the specialness of night in the Wilderness of Mongolia. The only light in the valley was the temporary lamp in the tent next door.
Here is what it sounded like:
During the middle of the night, the mosquitoes were gone and the Milky Way was out!
The next day we went for the rugged peak across the valley. It was getting hot and the initial forest didn’t look so old. But, we found some nice remnant pieces that should lengthen our record.
There was so much material, I got into the sawing act.
We stopped on a saddle around midday for lunch before shooting to the looming and rugged ridge ahead. What do we do for lunch in the wilds of Mongolia? Here is one example.
It was in the forest beyond the saddle where ideas/hypotheses of forest development in this part of Mongolia started bubbling up. Instead of working in young or burnt-over forest, we hit a pocket of ‘old-growth’ forest containing a pine with a 20-30′ fire scar and 12+ scars. It was sitting next to a forest of mixed species and ages. It was a lovely site.
We headed across the minor valley in pursuit of the marvelous looking pines across the way (below).
The area, again, was a goldmine. However, at this point, we had a nice collection of fire-scar samples. So, we went snobbish and decided to collect from the oldest, most scarred trees.
The slope we scrambled up was barren from the last fire and southwest facing. We later learned it hit 93 degrees F around the time we hiked up the open slope. We could feel it. We were on fumes. Even Bayaraa.
Again, efforts were rewarded when we hit The Three Amigos.
This trio of trees really made us happy! They were just what we have been looking for. I’ve not really seen these kinds of scars before, so I exclaimed, “OMG! It’s an onion!”
We retrieved our samples and relaxed for a bit. But, not for long. As we looked out over the valley, we saw and then heard the signs that we should get off the mountain quick.
As we were headed back to our camp, we saw the sky literally open up over the village of Hyagalant.
This storm, actually, turned out to be a benefit. Erdene’s mother was very concerned for our safety; she didn’t know it rained worse in the village than in our little piece of Xanadu. So, the next morning she scolded Baatar enough to come pick us up early. That was fortunate because we went to another ridge that morning (after meeting the herdsman and waiting out a storm). It turned out to be a complete bust. Baatar’s early arrival allowed us to drive to another ridge that would have taken too long to walk to.
What I found soon after taking the picture above was thrilling. In fact, it was the scene below where I yelled, “Field of Onions!”
The pictures below ought to explain the term ‘onion’.
This last day, the day in the Field of Onions, was likely the scientific highpoint of our 2011 field season. We found a high concentration of trees with multiple scars in a new region and the trees are of decent age. The climbing that day was fun, too. But, the battles with the mosquitos and heat left us on fumes. I am pretty sure we were only running on sawdust and mosquito wings [and, sure, some adrenaline].
We’ll top this long post off with a few more pictures.
By Cari Leland
I wish I could calculate the total amount of English Breakfast tea I consumed over the past year. While working on my thesis, tea drinking was an integral part of the process. There is something about that piping hot beverage that inspires thought, creativity, focus, and hard work. Mongolians might also agree that there is great value in tea. In fact, teatime could almost be considered part of their cultural heritage. No meal is complete without a steamy cup of milk tea – a drink that is not only nutritious, but also a symbol of the warm hospitality that is prevalent in Mongolian culture.
Honestly, I was not much of a tea drinker prior to my summer of fieldwork in Mongolia. I remember one day of fieldwork when Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, Byamba, Bayra, and I were on the hunt for old trees. Baatar drove us to a ger owned by some folks that he knew well. The hope was that they could show us the way to good sampling sites. The family greeted us with much warmth, as they kindly offered us yogurt biscuits and milk tea. I sat inside the ger – young children were playing outside, the livestock were grazing happily in the sun, and a partially-logged forest was viewable in the distance. While sipping milk tea in their home, it became abundantly clear why my thesis research could be important.
A significant portion of Mongolia’s economy is based upon the agricultural and livestock sectors (more than a third of their GDP, in fact), and herding, in particular, is an important part of their cultural identity. Therefore, there is concern over how climate change might impact the livelihood of Mongolians. Could the impacts vary spatially? More importantly, how has climate varied spatially over time? Temperatures have generally been increasing over the past few decades, but recent precipitation trends have varied across the country. Precipitation, in general, is a highly ‘local’ phenomenon that varies significantly across the Mongolian landscape. The lack of long-term instrumental records limits our ability to quantify spatial and temporal climatic variability in Mongolia. That’s when tree rings become useful. Annual growth rings allow us to better understand historical variability in climate, and to place recent climate trends in the context of the past several centuries.
The goal of my master’s thesis was to assess hydroclimatic variability across north-central Mongolia using a large network of tree-ring data. Since precipitation is so spatially variable across the country, my goal was to determine if tree-ring data could be used to define hydroclimatic regions (or regions with unique, historical moisture variability). The network consisted of 21 tree-ring sites and three different species (P. sibirica, P. sylvestris, L. sibirica) (see the map below, Fig. 1). Each study site consisted of multiple trees from which core samples were collected. Some of the data were collected over the past two field seasons, while other sites were sampled in the 1990s and early 2000s through the Mongolian American Tree-ring Project (MATRIP). MATRIP is a research collaboration between Mongolian scientists and researchers from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and their work made my thesis possible.
To keep it short and sweet, I will only discuss some of my most interesting findings. After using a rotated principal component analysis (RPCA), and other crazy statistics, on the network of tree-ring data, I found 4 unique ‘regions’ within the network (Fig.2 ). Cleverly, I called them the Eastern, Western, Northern and Central regions. These regions are outlined in red in the figure below, where large circles represent the tree-ring sites that have similar growth patterns over time. After more statistical analyses, it was apparent that these regions likely represent ‘hydroclimatic regions’. As you can see, each region has its own, distinct variability in hydroclimate over time (Fig.3).
Next, I looked at major historical drought and pluvial events across the entire tree-ring network. Pluvials are extended periods of wet conditions – the opposite of droughts. In the next two figures (Figs. 4 and 5), blue colors indicate generally wet conditions, whereas red indicates dry conditions. Figure 4 shows the major drought event associated with each region. Here, it’s obvious that the Eastern and Western regions of the tree-ring network will often have opposite trends. So, for example 1942-1944 (Fig. 4, Top-left) was a major drought in the Eastern region, but it was pretty wet in the Western region. In studying major pluvial events (Fig. 5) – the conditions were pretty wet across the entire network. Some of these results, particularly maps of major drought events, indicate that the Eastern and Western regions of the network are highly unique from one another. This could partly be attributed to topographic differences, as the Western region is located in the Khangai Mountains, whereas the Eastern region is on the leeward side of the Khentii mountains.
If you’d like to see more detailed descriptions of my methods, and other cool results from this study, search for my thesis on the following website: http://wvuscholar.wvu.edu. However, it will not be available for a few more months. You can also contact me if you would like a copy.
After reading this, I hope you can see how my research highlights the extent of spatial and temporal variability in hydroclimate across north-central Mongolia. These results could be used to understand regional trends in climate and to potentially help guide water resource management efforts. Recent severe droughts across Mongolia suggest that water management will be increasingly important in coming decades. These findings are an important stepping stone for further research and will be valuable for producing additional climate reconstructions.
The next big question: What large-scale climate forcings might be influencing climate, and how dynamic are these forcings? It looks like I will need a lot more tea….got milk?
This work would have not been possible without the support of Neil and Amy as my advisors, the expertise of Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, Dr. Nicole Davi, and field help from Byambagerel Suran, Uyanga Ariya, and Bayra. Oh, and of course Tom!
By Amy Hessl
How do you know when you are in wilderness? When you have walked beyond where most people walk, when you have left the road, left the (human) trail, passed the cut stumps and horse dung, climbed up over rocks and through burned birch forest and finally when the easiest route to walk is not a path tread by people but rather the path tread by wolves, moose and deer. The dark forests of Bugant contain thousands of square kilometers of such places.
The Khentii Mountains are steep and largely inaccessible to all but the most stolid hunters. Dirt tracks only passable during dry conditions traverse the mountains and occasional jeeps pass through, but the original forest is largely intact – old growth Scots pine forest with infrequent fires (for Mongolia). The Khentii Mountains near Bugant are the center of conifer diversity in Mongolia. Bugant is the only place in Mongolia where you can see seven native tree species living together (two pines, larch, spruce, fir, birch and aspen) . Towering pines stand at odd angles leering down on currant bushes full of fruit. Animal scat is everywhere – moose, wolf, bear, deer. Cut stumps occur only in the first 100 m from the road, then dissipate as the slopes steepen. There is literally no sign of man beyond those stumps. But we threaten.
Gold mines – piled high with the remains of hydraulic mining (the same technique used in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains during their gold rushes) – creep in to Bugant along the rivers and streams. With them comes money – money for railroads and improved roads that bring the end of the wild. Amazingly, Bugant is unprotected – it exists in its wild state only because of its inaccessibility. It truly is a last great place and worthy of the highest protection. The gold mines play out in a few years, but the slug of sediment will creep downstream for centuries and the mercury used to refine the gold will poison the well-water for just as long. Once perturbed, the wildnerness will be gone forever. Let’s find a way to protect Bugant!
By Neil Pederson
With much thanks to our colleague, Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, field research in Mongolia gets better each year.
Mongolians generally live at a different pace of life than many Americans and merging schedules to conduct field research can prove to be tricky. I have seen colleagues have their sense of pace challenged here. This year, however, we were packed, loaded and on the road a little over 36 hours after touching down in Ulaanbaatar. It was so quick it caught me off-guard; I almost begged for another day of acclimation.
Despite Intellicast.com forecasting generally cool weather leading up to our trip (70s in the day, 40s at night, which, after the late-July heat wave, had me drooling), the weather changed significantly upon our arrival – it was warm and humid (for Mongolia); it must have followed us over.
Not only did the quick departure from UB surprise us, the smooth road between UB and Erdenet whisked us to less than 50 km from Russia in no time. The only thing that made us hesitate was the brewing thunderstorm in the distance.
The storm forced us to stop and pack items on the roof of our rig inside.
We got back on the road and crossed a major river with many vendors selling fish. It is a sight I had not seen in 7 visits to Mongolia – “fish for sale!”
We stopped in the large, copper-mining town of Erdenet to pick up one of Baatar’s students, Erden. We also took in a fine meal at one of the best restaurants in Mongolia, …huh, it is so good, and perhaps new, that Lonely Planet doesn’t list it. It was Asian themed and upscale; the clientele were young, good-looking and fashionable.
We quickly made it to Erden’s folk’s home in Hyagalant. The town is a lovely, piney village near the Russian border (piney here is used in the southeastern US sense – the village is well-treed and on a sandy plain in the Selenge River Valley. There is a Coastal Plain or Piedmont feel to the land around Erden’s folk’s home).
Upon finally getting out of the vehicle, I felt a large sense of relief and familiarity. First, it was much cooler than UB. Second, the cool air was a bit more humid than the air we had left. It reminded me of cool, summer nights in the Adirondacks. I seriously contemplated sending home for the family and moving to Hyagalant. Erden’s home was unusual in that it was a two-story, log cabin/house. It was very well kept. As we would learn over the next few days, Erden’s parents are kind, hard-working and fastidious. Erden’s home seemed like a bit of Eden to me.
I think what we appreciated most about our temporary residence was the heavily-used, external kitchen (below).
Per Mongolian tradition, within minutes of our arrival we were invited to the table and served Mongolian tea, bread and cheese.
This tradition and their grounding in time and life is one reason I love coming to Mongolia. Mongolians greet strangers warmly, immediately offer drink and food and settle in for a nice visit. Time matters little. Life unfolds as it should, as it needs. People talk, smile and just relax. In many homes toasts are made, gifts are exchanged upon arrival and best wishes are expressed for whatever your goal for the visit might be. These wishes are sincere. For example, a few days later we drove to the southern side of the Selenge River looking for forests to sample. We completely struck out despite much local advice. Erden’s father truly felt terrible as we left later that day for another forest. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his feelings were obvious.
Anyhow, this outdoor space was the center of activity during our time there. Folks came and went. We had many meals and visits at that table. After success in this area, which will be relayed later, the family’s farm workers came by to discuss the haying season and operations. It turned out to be a spirited discussion:
These visits and experiences are a welcomed reminder as to what should ground our lives – being kind people and moving at a pace that is necessary at that moment.
Another thing I love about returning to Mongolia is the lack of light pollution, especially around the time of the Perseids. I am so much more of a stargazer in Mongolia. How could one not be? This is what night looks like, even in the village of Hyagalant:
After they cleared out their living room to make it our bedroom for the night, we headed for the forest the next morning. Our first stop was a davaa (mountain pass) just outside of town. It looked amazingly like a davaa we visited 2 years earlier, but many kilometers away. The forest was young, but held no prospect for research. However, we did happen on an old marker that Baatar said had Tibetan script on it:
Perhaps this was a road signpost from 100,000 days past?
We then headed to another flat, piney forest on another side of town. While this forest also had large pine and some fire scars, it was not quite old enough for the goals of our study. While driving through the forest, we were brought to an important, local ‘landmark’ – the Hanging Tree.
The story behind this tree is that a Russian general or military leader attempted to make a significant amount of the land around Hyagalant his own, personal Idaho. The locals, expectedly, didn’t take too well to this land grab and went after the leader. They brought him and several of his followers to this tree and hung them.
I’ve been brought to a hanging tree before, a tree from a darker part of American history. These kinds of trees have such a diametrically opposed meaning for me from how I view trees, I am at a loss on how to view or treat them. I mean, it isn’t like they went out of their way to to play this role in history; they are innocent. And, I still cannot believe what people did/do to one another. I cannot fathom it (yes, i read the news and know a bit about history).
I mean, in one sense I do understand this. I’ve been a part of some heated rivalries with those dreaded B’ville Bees; truly fierce. I’ve seen and been a part of heated discussions regarding SEC football or March Madness. I understand tribesmanship. I know how heated things get. But, to take it that far?…..
Anyhow, we were not there for long and, as you can see, the living tree is gone and it will soon return to the soil, be recycled and feed a new, more innocent generation of plants and animals (hopefully).
The next day our trip to the forest was delayed by some rig repair. Most roads in Mongolia are rough. And, to be a driver, you must also be a mechanic and have ears better than an owl. Baatar has all of that.
Not only do you have to be handy, you must be prepared:
Once repaired we headed to the southern side of the Selenge River Valley. We saw many wonderful things, but not enough fire scars. Many of our conversations went like this:
We stopped at a few homes and asked for advice. Here is the end of such a scene – watch for our local host to finish his tea. Even simply asking for advice demands a stop and cup of tea in Mongolia.
Despite these stops we found nothing…so far. Our success, a Goldmine and Field of Onions, will come a bit later. For now, I will cap this post off with scenes from the Selenge Valley and soundscapes of lands without machines.
What is it like driving around the wilds of Mongolia in a Russian jeep? Buckle up!
Did you hear that? Yup, nothing but insects.
More sounds of Mongolian wilderness
At 6:30 am on August 5, the R/V Langseth pulled into port in Dutch Harbor, marking the end of our very successful research cruise. Our steam into port from our study area involved a trip through Unimak pass and beautiful views of Aleutian volcanoes, including majestic Shishaldin.
Many things are required to make a research cruise successful, but one of the most important is the people. And we had great people in spades. The Langseth’s crew and technical staff are excellent: extremely competent, hard working and dedicated. Throughout our endeavor offshore Alaska, there were challenges: temperamental aging scientific equipment, tricky maneuvering very close to the coast line, subpar weather, etc. All of these obstacles (and more) were handled admirably and without complaints. Protected species observers cheerfully spent long, cold hours exposed to the elements on the observation tower watching for mammals to ensure that we operated responsibly. Our science party was also terrific; everyone worked hard and worked well together. And if you’re going to spend 38 days at sea with a group of people, it doesn’t hurt if they are nice and friendly in addition to being smart, competent and hard working. And it was a uniformly nice and friendly crowd aboard our cruise, MGL1110. Our efforts would also not be possible without support ashore from Lamont’s Marine Office and the National Science Foundation. The evening of our arrival in Dutch Harbor, we celebrated the completion of our successful cruise and toasted (repeatedly…) the people who made it possible at a post-cruise party at the Harbor View Bar and Grill.
Many people flew home after our arrival in Dutch Harbor, but not me! (At least not yet). Katie Keranen and I will recover the seismometers we deployed way back at the beginning of the summer. Hopefully these instruments recorded lots of earthquakes as well as our offshore experiment, and hopefully they were not disturbed or damaged by curious wildlife (including people!). An Anchorage-bound flight from Dutch Harbor dropped me off in Cold Bay on Aug 6, where I rendezvoused with Katie. After the plane landed, the stewardess asked for our “Cold Bay passenger” to disembark. Passenger. Singular. I filed past all the folks heading to Anchorage and beyond. Unlike them, I will linger a little longer on the beautiful Alaska Peninsula.
1 August 2011 – Final Dispatch from Arequipa, Peru
Now, after more than six weeks trawling the Peruvian Andes in search of palaeoclimate clues, we’re out of time. More than that, rather exhausted, too. Since we left Ampato, Matt has gone back to Tacoma, leaving Kurt and me to visit potential calibration sites near Coropuna. The objective of that ongoing work is to refine the cosmogenic surface-exposure method for the tropics, thereby improving the precision of new and existing datasets. It’s therefore a very high priority.
Many hours of rough driving over destroyed mining roads brought us finally to an isolated copper mine north of Coropuna. There, having waded through piles of bureaucratic red tape and caught a wretched cold from a forlorn security guard, I spent a few days exploring potentially suitable lava flows, while Kurt went off in search of palaeoindian lithics and rock shelters. It’s a fine spot, with amazing volcanic features and stunning views of Coropuna, and boasting more viscacha (a type of Andean rodent/rabbit/monkey mix) per square meter than anywhere else on Earth. It’s too early to say whether this area will prove useful, but the search itself certainly constituted a worthy adventure.
With our last samples collected and bagged, these last few days have been a whirlwind of tying up loose ends, such as returning the vehicle, shipping 100 kg of stones back to Lamont, and eating as much as possible. Arequipa is a lovely city, and a fine place to call base camp, but with so many chores to be done it was with a great measure of relief that we climbed onto the plane again at the foot of Volcan Misti, bound for Lima and, ultimately, the northern city of Huaraz. I could go on for pages about the splendours of that place, tucked up in the stupendous Cordillera Blanca, but I shall save it for another year. As for now, I shall swap icy peaks, tents, and blue skies for the record-setting heat of urban New York, while Kurt heads back south to Arequipa for a while longer to complete archaeologic lab work there. This has been a fantastic season, our most successful yet – I hope you’ve enjoyed following along from a safe distance.
Although we still have ~3 days of data collection aboard the R/V Langseth to go before we pull in our equipment and head for port, we are already drowning in beautiful seismic data. Following each pulse from the air gun array, the two 8-km-long streamers listen for returning sound waves for 22 seconds. This is enough time for the sound waves to travel down through the water, sediments, crust and upper mantle and back again. Arriving sound waves are recorded on a total of 1272 separate pressure sensors along the streamers, producing about 60 Mb of data for each pulse. Repeat this every 25 seconds for 3 weeks, and you end up with a pile of data! We have already recorded over 2.5 terabytes (2500 gigabytes!) of raw seismic data. This does not include other large datasets that we are simultaneously acquiring, such as detailed bathymetric mapping of the seafloor.
Once we obtain the raw data, our eager scientific party cannot resist beginning some rudimentary analysis, thereby generating even more large data files that take up yet more disk space. In search of instant gratification, we use some quick and dirty processing steps to produce preliminary images from our data and get a first peek at the structures beneath the seafloor. This is standard procedure on cruises aboard the Langseth and other seismic ships. Often, such images reveal very little; careful analysis of seismic data to create clear and accurate images of earth structures takes years. But in our case, the data are of such high quality that spectacular features are evident even in these rough first images, including the plate boundary and other faults. This assures us that hard work on the data following the cruise will produce very exciting results.
One of the key shipboard tasks is determining the position of the gear in the water and combining this navigational information with the raw data. Our streamers are 12 m under the sea surface, so we cannot simply attach tons of GPS sensors to them to figure out where they are at any given time. Instead, the Langseth’s infatigable Chief Navigator, David Martinson, works out the locations of the streamers using GPS’s at the beginnings and ends, a series of compasses spaced along the streamers, and several “acoustic nets,” sets of instruments that give the distances between the streamers at key positions. He can determine the positions of our two unruly 8-km-long cables to within ~5 m or less at any given time – amazing!
We also produce initial images of seafloor topography from bathymetry data. At sea we begin the arduous task of manually editing vast quantities of the data, but the effort pays off. Careful analysis of these high-resolution data can reveal faults that cut through the seafloor, seamounts, and sedimentary features.
By Neil Pederson
We, Amy and me, have finally made it to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (UB) to start the 2011 field season. It was a long journey getting here. We went through China because I have a conference to attend after fieldwork in Xi’an, China. This made the purchasing of tickets easier and would give us time to work on the plane and in transit.
China is not the preferred path to get into Mongolia. That would be South Korea. This trip underscored that point. We flew Air China, which is a fine airline. But, with no outlets for power to run our laptops and no individual TV screens, this old-skool plane would test us by taking us back in time. We got some work done, slept a bit, saw a low-resolution Asian karate/kung-fu flick and slept. Continental or Korea Air are much better.
The good thing about flying through China is that, for me, the airport is a marvel. It is huge, airy and just beautiful to stare at over Thai food while enduring jet buzz following a 12 hr trip. However, the wait ended up being much less comfortable – we pretty much spent too many hrs on the floor of the airport; there was no place to crash. China needs to rectify this! It is a lovely airport, though.
This year’s trip started in a way that last yr’s trip ended, but, in reality, how all trips to Mongolia should begin: meeting the panhandler of all panhandlers in Mongolia.
I met this man on my first trip in 1998. In fact, Brendan Buckley and I crossed paths with him about 4-5 times that summer. He didn’t speak much English and always wore a suit jacket. He puts postcards or some trinkets into your hands and pulls out a slip of paper saying that his ger has burned down, he has lost some of his family and he could use some money.
I met him on my last day in Mongolia in 2010 [pic below]. I was so happy and surprised to see him – I hadn’t seen him in a few yrs until that day. I smiled while he talked and said, “I know you! I’ve met you before. I’m happy to see you are doing well.”
He said, “You know me?”
I said, “Yes. I’ve met you several times over the years.”
With that he quickly turned and walked away. So, it was with great surprise to see him yesterday. He looked good and his English is now much better. He had on a suit jacket, a better one than 13 yrs ago, in fact. I tried to get a picture of his face, but he held up his hands in protest and said, “no pictures. But, RMB or Singaporean money I’ll take.” We laughed, put the postcards back in his hand and he left. Baatar, our host, said he has never seen him drunk or acting poorly. So, there is a good, responsible person behind this act. Obviously, if his face was exposed, he’d have no act.
Anyhow, after we left the airport and made it to downtown UB at midday, we were running on fumes. Neither of us had slept much and we were a bit delirious. We checked into our rooms in the Puma and I finally got a shower.
The water didn’t heat up much, so I woke up again. I also woke because we met up with our great Mongolian colleague, Baatarbileg Nachin.
It is always great to re-visit a long-time friend; I first met Baatar in 1998 when he was a PhD student and I was a tech. Seeing him, hearing the Mongolian language and the beautiful faces of Mongolians woke me up and postponed my nap. I took to the streets to visit old haunts and take in the city. I was excited to be in town again.
I went to the State Department Store, which was this colossal & drab Communist-era store in 1998 and now a modern, clean, bright and diverse store. I stopped at the fruit stand next to the department store to pick up some bananas; I stopped there every 2-3 days for 1.5 months last summer. I think the proprietor recognized me. She smiled warmly and broadly, which, as you ought to know, is not Mongolian. I then popped into Cafe Amsterdam for a warm drink. It is about 15-20 degrees F cooler this week compared to our trip last year. It forebodes of snow this field season.
It was a rush to see the faces and streets of Mongolia. One of the running themes on this blog is how Mongolians are blending the old and the new. While the rate of construction likely hasn’t slowed much, downtown UB appears fairly stable since 2006, there are still changes afoot. Not too many obvious things have changed. The changes in this part of the city now seems to be more of the infrastructure – sidewalks, re-facing buildings, etc. But, the most amazing thing to me is to see the amount of bananas for sale on UB’s streets. Last yr was the first year I was able to get bananas here – good, fresh bananas like back in the US. In a short walk I saw 4-5 stalls selling bananas and several Mongolians eating bananas while they walked. From a 1998 context, this is a rather jarring image.
Yet at the same time, not all that much has changed. Apparently there is a bumper crop of Siberian pine cones this yr. Siberian pine produce pine nuts like those you find in fine US markets. However, pine nuts in Mongolia are not a food one would only consider from upscale markets – it is a regular food. They are not produced regularly every year. But, during bumper-crop years, they are everywhere. I started noticing the bracts on the sidewalk and saw a young boy run by with a Siberian pine cone in his hand. The cones are beautiful (we’ll post a pic soon). An upscale Mongolian woman was nibbling pine nuts in Cafe Amsterdam with her latte. And, here we are again – an afternoon snack of millennial-old and modern-day foods in downtown UB.
Lastly, the people on the flight in were interesting and not completely ‘typical’ for most flights I’ve taken over the last decade into Mongolia. There were Mongolians and tourists. But, there were many men that seemed to be into security or something similar. We happened to sit next to a western man supervising mines in western Mongolia. It was an enlightening, though sadly enlightening conversation. Mongolia is being over-run by mining interests. Perhaps nothing can represent this better than what we saw on the streets of UB last night: an H2 Hummer with Kentucky license plates:
The Gold Rush is On!
20th July – Dispatch from Nevado Ampato, Andes
Our camp is at 5045 m on the dusty slopes of Ampato, an extinct, ice-clad volcano in the Western Cordillera. This is the very mountain from which Juanita, the famous Incan ‘ice maiden’, was plucked back in 1995. The tents are clustered in the lee of a large glacial erratic and, now the clouds have cleared, the view is second to none, taking in the dry plains far below and myriad volcanic peaks in every direction. Of these, only distant Ubinas shows any activity, letting slip the occasional cloud of ash. To complete the picture, behind us are the hulking masses of 6380 m-high Ampato and it’s smaller yet more violent brother, Sabancaya.
Yes, it is a fine place to call home as we begin mapping and sampling moraines of late-glacial and Holocene age in this part of the world. For added interest, the landscape here is dominated by sinuous lava flows that extend many kilometres from Sabancaya’s summit to the puna below. These black tongues of rock are both grotesque and strangely beautiful, especially when dusted with snow.
Speaking of dust, or rather sand, recently it has become a bit of a plague. Given the propensity for volcanic activity in this part of the Andes, our peaks camp is located on a surface of black sand, dust, and gravel, much of which becomes airborne during the fierce wind storms we’ve been experiencing. Just yesterday, as we were working on the youngest and highest moraines on Ampato, we happened to be suffering through a particularly bumpy spell of weather.The wind was funnelling down from the peak and pushing around waves of drifting snow. It was truly invigorating! From our high perch, though, we watched as plumes of dust were lifted by the wind from the plateau below, forming a brown blanket that came to obscure all but the highest peaks before spreading south to torment the city of Arequipa. By the time we returned to our camp that afternoon, our world was one of particulate matter. Sand in our food, sand in our tents, sleeping bags, and clothes. Worst of all, there was sand in my tea. But then, they always did say it takes a lot of grit to be a glacial geologist.
For the last nine days, we have been underway acquiring seismic reflection data to study a plate tectonic boundary offshore Alaska with the R/V Marcus G. Langseth. Now that the initial excitement of deploying all of our seismic gear and watching the first sound waves arrive on our two 8-km-long streamers has faded, we have settled into a routine of watches and standard shipboard data processing. Meals, sleep and leisure also take on predictable patterns. Each day resembles the one before, and they all start to blend together. This may sound rather humdrum, but an uneventful day at sea is normally a successful and productive one (as one of the undergraduate watchstanders noted). When something “exciting” happens, it is usually not good.
Happily, a large proportion of our nine days have been blissfully boring, but we have had our share of happenings. Excitement takes the form of equipment failures, bad weather and marine mammals. Acquiring marine seismic reflection data is a fantastically complex undertaking involving a lot of sophisticated, interdependent gear, so things can and do go wrong once in a while. A few nights ago, one of our streamers sank too deep, causing a “streamer recovery device” (a specialized airbag) to deploy and float the streamer to the surface. The next morning, a team used the workboat to visit the problematic streamer section and remove the airbag. On a few other occasions, I have received phone calls in the middle of the night summoning me from my cabin to the main lab to discuss other equipment hiccups – no one ever calls at 3 a.m. to let you know that everything is going swell.
Whales are beautiful and majestic, and we have been treated to numerous sightings, but we try to keep our distance. Since we are creating sound waves to image the earth, and marine mammals use sound to navigate and communicate with one another, our activities might disturb them. A team of protected species observers (PSO) watches for mammals, and we suspend operations if a mammal comes too close. Yesterday morning, we found ourselves surrounded by three species of whales, including a rare Northern Pacific Right Whale – an amazing sight, but it prevented us from collecting data for nearly four hours.
Of course there are notable exceptions to the “excitement is bad” maxim, the most important of which is the science! We use our new data to create very preliminary images of the structures below the seafloor as we go, and they have revealed some intriguing and surprising features. A regular sight in the main lab is a group of people gathered around a computer screen or a large paper plot, talking and pointing excitedly. We have a lot of hard work ahead after the cruise to obtain concrete results, but it’s exhilarating to glimpse faults, sediments and other structures in our data for the first time and ponder what they might be telling us about this active plate tectonic boundary. Even after spending a total of nine months at sea on ten research cruises over my career, the excitement of new data has definitely not worn off.
One of the core objectives of our project is to image the part of the plate tectonic boundary that locks up and then ruptures to produce great earthquakes. In the Aleutian subduction zone, the Pacific plate is being thrust northwards underneath the North American plate. To examine deep parts of the interface between these plates, we need to go as far north (and as close to the coast) as possible. This is easier said than done. We are towing a lot of scientific equipment behind the ship, including two 8-km-long cables (streamers) filled with pressure sensors, so approaching the coast and making turns is complicated and requires special attention to safeguard our gear. The southern edge of the Alaska Peninsula is rugged and flanked by lots of small jagged islands and shallow features just below the surface of the ocean. Currents and water density can vary locally near the coast, which could affect the positions and depths of our streamers behind the ship. And there is more fishing activity close to the coast, and thus increased risk of tangling seismic gear with fishing lines and nets. To reduce the risk, we scouted all of the trickiest parts of our survey ahead of time before we deployed the streamers, and we monitor the currents and fishing as we approach the coast. Captain Jim O’Loughlin, Chief Science Officer Robert Steinhaus, and the Langseth’s other crew and technical staff have a tremendous amount of experience and skill in maneuvering in tight spots while towing seismic equipment.
We recently completed one of our closest approaches to land near Unga, one of the Shumagin islands. At the apex of the turn, our 8-km-long (5-mile-long) streamers came within less than a mile of the coast. Due to some early difficulties with our equipment and an abundance of marine mammals, we had to make several attempts to collect data on the landward part of the line (and thus several passes near the shoreline). I held my breath and watched our third (and final) pass from the bridge. After the ship and gear passed safely through the most harrowing part of the turn, the captain turned to me and asked, “We’re not going to do this again, are we?” Thankfully not! At least not here. But there are several other important parts of our survey ahead that will require close approaches to the coast to image critical parts of the plate tectonic boundary. As with this near-shore encounter, we will rely on the skill and experience of the mates and the technical staff, as well as a little luck.