Everything that we understand about the rhythms of the Earth’s surface – the slow growth of mountain chains, the creeping expansion of the ocean basins, the abrupt upheaval of a major earthquake, the explosive eruption of a volcano – is viewed through the context of plate tectonics. This simple yet highly successful model for describing processes at Earth’s surface rests on two notions: (1) the outer shell of the Earth is broken up into nearly rigid blocks, or “plates”, ranging in thickness from a few 10’s to a few 100’s of kilometers; (2) nearly all the geologic activity such as faulting and volcanism happens in very narrow zones at the boundaries between these plates. As a result, Earth scientists generally focus on understanding faulting and volcanism at plate boundaries. But to understand what happens at the contacts between plates, we need to address an underlying question – what is a plate? Or more specifically, what critical processes allow the rock within the plate to behave very rigidly, in sharp contrast to the weak rock beneath the plate’s base, or along its margins?
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a team of scientists departed Honolulu for a remote portion of the central Pacific Ocean on the research vessel R/V Marcus G. Langseth in search of answers to this question. Our target is a swath of seafloor approximately 1200 miles southeast of Hawaii (see map). We chose this area because it contains some of the oldest oceanic crust on the planet and it has not been modified by other volcanic activity since it was formed 70 million years ago. We hope that the structure of this mature, pristine oceanic plate can illuminate the most basic aspects of plate formation and evolution.
After a four-day steam, we will arrive at our study area armed with a suite of geophysical tools to image the oceanic plate in this region with unprecedented precision and scope. We will toss 61 ocean-bottom seismographs (OBS) overboard in 5000-meter-deep water over a 600-km by 400 km area. OBS sink slowly to the seafloor and autonomously record sound waves from natural and man-made sources. Some of these sensors will remain on the bottom for over a year, recording the shaking from distant earthquakes. The remainder will record sound waves generated using large airguns towed in the water behind the ship and will be recovered at the end of this cruise. Simultaneously, we will record sound waves reflecting back from beneath the seafloor on an 6-km-long “streamer” containing hundreds of seismic sensors that we tow behind the ship. Finally, we will deploy a set of instruments designed to measure the electrical and magnetic fields at the seafloor. This combination of instruments will provide detailed information on the seismic wavespeed and electrical conductivity structure through the oceanic plate, which we will use to constrain the rock properties that control plate behavior. The experiment is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Seagoing research is an exciting but stressful business, and this cruise is no exception. In particular, the large water depths put tremendous pressure on seafloor instruments, increasing the risk of loss. In addition, the research activities are highly choreographed, and even modest difficulty with equipment or weather can compromise the experiment. But we are optimistic that this program will yield fundamental new insights on a core aspect of our paradigm for Earth processes. Over the next 30 days, I will provide regular updates on the project – both the day to day rhythms of life at sea, and the exciting science that will follow.
I will admit it, there was a time when I loved conifers. Like, I was truly fanatical about coniferous trees. The first time I felt that way was upon walking among the great eastern white pine trees in the Adirondack State Park as an undergraduate research assistant and student. My first exposure to some truly impressive pumpkin pine was in the grove of old trees at the Pack Forest. These trees, charismatically represented by the Grandmother Tree, are truly impressive if you are seeing old-growth forests in northeastern North America for the first time. Soon after, I was taken on a hike to see a few large eastern white pine at the ranger school on Cranberry Lake. I was enamored.
As my educational path careened southward, I was brought to the large and old loblolly pines in the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. It was just a few years post-Hurricane Hugo and about half of the dense, massive loblollies were blown over. But, there were, and are, patches in the upper Coastal Plain that can give you a sense of how tree-mendous this forest was preio to Hugo. While not ancient, these trees are old for their species (the oldest tree was confirmed alive just a few days ago, making it at least 246 years old!). Please, go see these trees before they topple, especially in the heat of the summer. The scent they emit in the southern heat is savory.
My next stop was over the course of two years in the great longleaf pine ecosystem of the Deep South. The tree that is the foundation species of this highly diverse system is beyond charismatic. It is long-lived, has a phenomenal tap root that can look like another whole tree below ground, and long needles arranged like a basketball at the end of its twig. It is a glorious tree and ecosystem that deserves our attention and careful restoration across most of the Coastal Plain.
Not long after I finally landed in the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for the first time, I was whisked away to the other side of the world to far, western Mongolia. Toward the end of that first, epic trip (think serious water illness; an outbreak of Black Plague; breaking out of the city quarantine at dawn; sharing a room with dead marmots, carriers of Black Plague; an overbooked plane back to the capital because of the plague; being wrongly held up at the border on the way home and missing our return flight….), we found what is still the oldest tree that I have personally cored: a 752-year-old Siberian larch in the Altai Mountains.
The next year I was on an expedition to the northernmost trees on Earth, the larch on the Taymir Peninsula. The scraggly small trees that were 400-600 years old were just lovely from so many perspectives…
Jeez, I’ve gone off-track here. I admit it. I still have the fever for conifer trees.
The point of all this preamble and this blog, however, is to point out that, yes, conifers are cool trees and while I will mostly ignore them on this blog, I dig them. However, I contend that the research field on the study of most broadleaf tree species is ripe, especially from a dendronchronological perspective. And, for this reason, but perhaps more for the fabulous diversity of leaf shape, bark texture, flower arrangement, autumn leaf color and overall funkiness of broadleaf species, I have moved on to adore broadleaf species.
Scientifically, we generally know much more about conifers than broadleaf species. Why this might be, I am not certain. I would think that conifers are the most studied type of tree for many reasons. Here are three:
1) They are highly valuable forestry species; foresters have been studying their natural history or life-history traits for centuries.
2) They live in extreme environments; forest ecologists and dendrochronologists trying to understand long-term climatic and ecological change focus on trees and forests in environments that are perceived to be the most sensitive to environmental change.
3) They live longer than hardwood trees; so, for many of the same reasons in #2 above, conifers are generally targeted by tree-ring scientists.
The goal of this blog, therefore, is at least twofold. First, it will be a champion for the wonderful, overlooked broadleaf species and their associated forests in the eastern United States and abroad. Of course, overlooked might be too strong of a word. For example, Liriondendron tulipifera (tuliptree, yellow-poplar, tulip-poplar) was an early species described by foresters as they began to scientifically study eastern forests. However, as will be demonstrated, our general knowledge of broadleaf species, including tuliptree, is much more limited than many coniferous species.
Second, as natural history is much less of a focus in modern ecological research, despite its necessity for long-term biological conservation, this blog will serve as an outlet for the natural history of broadleaf species learned through dendrochronology. While conducting paleoclimatological and paleoecological research through the examination of old-growth trees and forests, we often learn much about the natural history of individual species. However, this particular type of information rarely makes it into the scientific literature, as it is rarely the focus of our work (you would be so lucky to sit at a bar sometime with a handful of experienced dendrochronologists — the depth of their natural history knowledge is great). Because natural history appears to be dying out at American universities, the uncertainty around simple questions like, ”How long can a tuliptree live?” and “How long might the shade-intolerant tuliptree persist in shade?” is high. This blog will serve as one place to answer some of these questions.
This blog will also serve up some of my favorite images of broadleaf species and forests. To close off the first post, here are some delightful images of the appropriately-named bigleaf Magnolia.
By Kirsty Tinto & Mike Wolovick – As little as a few decades ago you could ask a scientist what it was like to monitor the changing ice in Antarctica and the response might have been “Like watching paint dry” – seemingly no change, with no big surprises and not too exciting. Well times have changed! The Ice Bridge Mission is deep into its third Antarctic season collecting data on the condition of the continental scale ice sheet and the floating sea ice that surrounds it, and has noted some exciting results!
On a recent survey flight, which was designed to be fairly routine flying back and forth across the main trunk of Pine Island Glacier, a large crack was spotted in the floating ice tongue in the front of the glacier – a crack large enough to bury a building 16 stories high! This means more changes are coming in the future of this active ice stream!
Pine Island Glacier has been under intense focus as one of the fastest moving, and rapidly thinning glaciers in Antarctica. The planned survey was a grid back and forth across the main trunk of Pine Island Glacier. The pilots refer to this kind of survey as “mowing the lawn”. This type of data collection is essential for putting together a more complete ‘picture’ of the glacier surface, depth, and its underlying surface, and its ‘grounding line’. The ‘grounding line’, shown here as the white line running through the image of the survey plan, is the front edge of where the glacier is frozen all the way to the bottom surface beneath it. The glacier extends beyond the grounding line but as a ‘floating tongue’ of ice.
Glacial tongues can be many meters thick, but because they rest on water they are susceptible to warming from the water below. It is not unexpected for sections of the tongues of glaciers to break off – in fact for this glacier scientists expect to see it occur about twice a decade (the last notable occurrence was in 2007). It is, however, impressive to see it actually developing, and to realize the scale of the crack as it begins – at least 50 meters deep, and up to 250 meters wide! Yes this is much better than watching paint dry!
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been a partner in this NASA led project collecting airborne gravity. The Ice Bridge Mission is designed to fill the gap between two satellite missions, IceSat I and IceSat II, collecting data on ice thickness in both polar regions. IceSat II is intended to be in orbit in another 4 to 5 years.
Mstorec2 ras repaired with all four CPUs running and was back up at about 12:30PM
Mstorec2 has to come down immediately to replace a failed CPU. Sorry for the short notice.
Users on the "new" mail server will need to use Ingo (similar to the CUIT systems) to either forward your mail, OR to set up a vacation message.
As we headed north to our target areas, we have used any extra time to collect some seismics. We got some near Aricha, then again under the Jamuna Bridge. Today we collected data near Bogra, where the transect of wells that we drilled last spring is located. All three pieces of data show reflectors, including a strong one we think is the bottom of the river valley from glacial times when sea level was 120m (393 ft) lower. It seems to shallow as we go north, which fits with our interpretation.
Having to exchange pilots for every stretch of the river made estimating how far we can go each day more confusing. No, we can’t go that far, then perhaps if we hurry. How fast we can go depends on the ever-changing currents. Each pilot only really knows his own stretch of the river. We make multiple contingency plans. We had to change pilots at a little stop just south of Bogra. That cost enough time, we couldn’t make it to our next stop at Bahadurabad Ghat. Option one was we shoot seismics and then return to this place. While shooting, the pilot agreed that we could then go on to some village on the way. If we stop shooting now, we can make it to Islampur only a little south of our target.
A pattern developed of the crew being overly conservative, correctly not wanting to get stuck in the middle of the river at night, but gradually they work hard to get us what we need and plans change. We initially wanted to start continuous shooting from Bogra north, but even we could tell we could not come close to reaching Bahadurabad if we did that. We got a few critical kilometers and steamed north without shooting to the village where we spent the night. Now, they have become more open to sailing and stopping wherever we are at the end of the day, just in time for our continuous profile. Problem solved.
Last night, Dhiman joined the ship and this morning Rafael and I left to return home. The little village is connected by one of the worst roads in Bangladesh. I will miss when the ship crosses the Dauki Fault during the final continuous shooting upstream on the Brahmaputra to the border. The ship will also collect data going downstream, but the speed over the ground will be very fast, perhaps limiting the quality. However, Volkhard and Tilmann are confident as the speed through the water will not be too high. They do not give up.
Overall the cruise has been a mixture of disappointing data in the east combined with the now very good data coming in in the west. And there is a good chance that tomorrow will bring triumphant images of where the Dauki Fault goes west of the Shillong Plateau. We have cemented our ties to the Bremen group, who have worked offshore for many years, but never entered Bangladesh before. Several joint efforts have developed. Mr. Islam, our guide, has been great. Getting to know the Bangladeshis from Dhaka University, the Geologic Survey and the crew has been harder due to language and my status. Last night we bonded more as we waited together for Dhiman’s very late arrival. I am not so good at languages, nor as exuberant as Tommy. Still, two weeks on an 85 ft. boat brings everyone together.
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!