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.
14th July – Dispatch from Chivay, Peru
After a busy few weeks in the Cordillera Carabaya, we’ve said goodbye to the snowy, tempestuous climate of the eastern Andes and are moving west to the desert of Arequipa. Here the mountains are massive, isolated volcanoes, many of which exceed 6000 m in elevation. In fact, Coropuna is the third highest mountain in Peru and certainly the most sprawling. It’s a landscape dominated by lava and aridity, and populated only by wild vicuna, condors, and a few hardy llama herders. Our first stop was Chivay, a lovely little town nestled in the upper Colca Canyon under the shadow of the enormous Nevado Ampato. We spent a day there recharging, replenishing our stocks and generally avoiding the blizzard on the plateau above. This being the desert, we had not anticipated that the bad weather would follow us west, but evidently it is possible. There is nothing quite like driving through the night, down the side of a canyon, in a snowstorm to focus the mind!
Our work here involves mapping both the glacial deposits and Holocene lavas on the two volcanoes, Ampato and Sabancaya. Though in sight of Arequipa, the place is actually more remote than Coropuna, accessible only via a two-hour drive down a washed out dirt road. This is a new region for us and so it promises to be a fascinating few days of exploring.
By Neil Pederson
Another late-summer, another trip to Mongolia.
We are less than two weeks from our last expedition as a part of our current research project: Climate, Fire & Forest Ecology in Mongolia. Mongolia, as it always does, starts creeping into the back of my mind and emerging from my bones this time of year. A few weeks ago I woke and craved a hotdog for breakfast, which, as you can imagine, is an unusual thing for a typical American breakfast. However, when a Mongolian colleague stayed at my house for 3 months many years ago, he ate some kind of sausage every day for breakfast. As I look towards my 7th trip to Mongolia, I get it. I understand this diet. It is still surprising, though, how this happened. How this craving came from nowhere as we moved into summer.
Despite this forewarning, Mongolia is almost on our “10-day clock‘ and I am a bit shocked. The trip seems to be arriving at light speed. With another heat wave spreading being forecast across the US, the forecast of cooler temperatures in Mongolia, however, are extremely appealing.
A recurring theme on this blog is the pace at which things are changing in Mongolia, culturally and ecologically. We have begun diving into meteorological records over the past year as a part of our data analysis. We have heard from colleagues and the people we meet in the shops and cafes of Mongolia about the severe drought in Mongolia over the last decade. But, only upon finally seeing the meteorological data of the 2000s can we comprehend the magnitude of what we have been told and what the trees are saying: It is getting dry!
You can see the “long-term” trend in the streamflow of the Kherlen Gol at Undurkhaan. The step-change in moisture since the late-1990s is what has artists, resource managers and environmentalists talking. A larger regional investigation by Jinbao Li confirms this pattern across eastern China and Mongolia.
However, this is why we do tree-ring research. Yes, there is a trend in declining moisture availability since the 1950s, but that is only 50 years. Research by students in Amy Hessl’s lab at West Virginia University, specifically Tom Saladyga and Caroline Leland, as well as research by Nicole Davi and myself at the Tree Ring Lab of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, indicate that the 1900s might have been fairly wet versus much of the prior 250 years. In fact, the late-1900s might have been the peak of this pluvial. If so, that is a nasty set up for a significantly-dry, decade-long drought. That puts a slightly different perspective on these changes [that requires more analysis in the coming year].
Regardless, a reduction in precipitation in the east, combined with greater demand for large-scale mining, wood products and the recovery of agriculture in Mongolia, ratchets up the environmental and societal pressures within the nation.
So, it is with good news that I learned this morning that CNN will be reporting on modern Mongolia. The world’s fascination with the great Mongol Empire ought to bring in more viewers. That is my hope.
Mongolia was left a bit unprepared for independence. They are quickly recovering and reclaiming what was lost during the 20th century. The discovery of so many precious minerals and resources below the Mongolian steppe is causing a rapid transformation in culture and the ecology of the land that requires world attention. Yes, Mongolians are fiercely independent and strong. But, the pressures for resource extraction are so great that it would be fantastic if news of what is happening in Mongolia brings assistance to the preservation of the mesmerizing Mongolian landscape and culture.
On July 11, we marked the successful completion of the first phase of our project and embarked on the second. Part 1 involved deploying ocean bottom seismometers and recording air-gun-generated sound waves. We successfully retrieved all of the OBS’s, and the data that they recorded look very exciting at first blush (and contain some surprises!). Part 2 involves towing two 8-km-long cables (or streamers) filled with pressure sensors behind the R/V Langseth, which will also record sound waves from the Langseth’s airgun array. Changing gears in terms of scientific activities also involved changes to our science party; we swapped personnel in Sand Point on a beautiful sunny evening. The excellent OBS team from Scripps departed on the Langseth‘s zodiak, and we were joined by new reinforcements. The newcomers included five undergraduate students from Columbia University, who are also blogging about their experiences at sea.
Just two hours after taking on our new personnel, we started deploying seismic gear – a very quick transition! Our seismic streamers are stored on gigantic spools, which unreel cable off the back of the ship into the ocean. A large buoy is affixed to the end of the streamer, and ‘birds’ are attached along its length, which can be used to control the depth of the streamer. Large paravanes hold the streamers apart; these are like large kites flying in the water off the back corners of the ship.
Deploying miles of streamer and the other attending gear is an impressively long and complicated undertaking. We started over two days ago, and have been working around the clock in shifts ever since. Many repairs and adjustments are made to the gear as it’s deployed. The streamer is divided into 150-m-long sections connected by modules; both sections and modules can fail and need to be replaced. Replacing a 150-m-long section of cable is an arduous task involving major manual labor by teams of ~5-6 people. But we are nearing the finish line; as I write, the last kilometer of the second streamer is going over the back of the boat. Fingers crossed that the deployment will soon be complete and the data collecting can begin!
10th July – Dispatch from Nevado Tolqueri, Cordillera Carabaya, Andes
We have acquired a dog, ¨”Mooch”. Walking back to camp yesterday, amid driving snow and fully laden with rock samples, there he was exploring what passes for our kitchen. Unlike most Andean dogs - ferocious beasts trained to keep geologists from harassing the livestock – this one is a cheerful soul, happy to hang around and be fed whatever is going, and always up for affection. Where he came from we don´t know. We´re camping at 4750 m in a shallow valley between moraines that keeps the worst of the wind at bay.
There is nothing to burn here and so the nights are frigid, though the view of the entire Cordillera Carabaya, as far as Bolivia, is superb. There are a few hardy souls farming alpacas up here, so presumably the canine comes from one of those, but nobody seems to be missing him. Last night he cleaned our plates and pans, as the snow fell all around, and this morning he was still there. I awoke to find Mooch curled up by the stoves, tucked up in a snowy ball. He immediately perked up once I arrived and waited with agreeable patience as we made a sort of rice pudding for breakfast. Then, with breakfast done, he followed Matt and me as we went off to collect a few more samples for surface-exposure dating. It will be sad to leave the pup, but we must head west soon to the desert Andes. And as Kurt noted, a high-altitude dog accustomed to sleep in the snow would hardly fare well in subtropical New York!
A word on the weather here. It´s taken a turn for the worse. We´ve been working on LGM moraines beneath Nevado Tolqueri and have made great strides there, collecting tens of samples from a fantastic sequence of moraines. But a drawn out storm has engulfed us from the east, appearing first as enormous thunder clouds and transitioning into incessant snow and high wind. It´s not quite what we´d expected but what can you do? It´s times like these we wish we had a kitchen tent instead of a patch of open mountain for cooking. It will be interesting to see how far west this system goes. In the meantime, we will try to keep our feet dry and the dog fed.
4th July – Dispatch from the Andes
Thanks in large part to Matt, an undergraduate from Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, we now have more than sixty samples for surface-exposure dating. This is no easy feat, for collecting these samples requires a great deal of hammering on granite boulders with nothing more than a hammer and chisel. There are other ways of doing it, such as using small explosive charges, rock saws, or splitting wedges, but we find that good old-fashioned hammering is by far the safest way. I say ‘we’ but really this means Matt. He has a gift for removing large amounts of rock, be it a soft shale or the hardest quartzite. And best of all, he doesn´t complain. So in all, we have sixty four samples from the Aricoma region, from moraines of all ages. In addition to the hammering, the process includes detailed descriptions of each boulder and measurement of location, altitude, and how much of the surrounding sky is obscured by mountains. It can take a while but we have it down to an art now, as the ton or so of granite in the back of our vehicle attests!
We´re also collecting sediment cores from bogs within the moraines, so as to provide radiocarbon ages for the deposits. Just yesterday we extracted a two-meter core from a basin near camp that lies between two long moraine ridges. It was a messy business, taking the three of us to punch the core barrel through the malodorous slime and into the stiff glacial clay, going as and as far as the rocks below. When all was said and done, each of us was fairly bloody and covered with ancient mud, but the core was extracted and the day was ours. Now the core is neatly contained in plastic tubing, sealed from the air and ready for shipment to Lamont where it will be analyzed.
After leaving our seismometers on the seafloor offshore Alaska for a few days to record sound waves generated by the air guns of the R/V Langseth, we returned to collect them. The recovery of OBS always involves a certain amount of suspense. Despite all of the advanced engineering and planning that goes into these instruments, it is an endeavor with inherent risk, and things can and do go wrong sometimes: one or more of the glass balls that make the OBS float could implode; the acoustic communication with the instrument could fail; it might be stuck on the seafloor for one reason or another; it could have been accidentally dragged off by trawlers. All of these thoughts ran through my mind at each site as we waited for the instrument to come to the surface.
To recover the OBS, we return to the place where we deployed it and communicate with it acoustically. We send it a command to release from its anchor and float back to the surface. The OBS rises through the water at 45 meters per minute, so the wait can be long if the water is deep. Some of ours were 5500 m below the surface! The instruments can also drift away from their original deployment location on the way down or the way back up due to ocean currents. When they arrive at the surface, we can spot their orange flags and strobe lights; they also send out radio signals.
Despite all the technology required to place a seismometer many miles below the ocean on the seafloor and summon it back to the surface, many aspects of actually plucking an OBS out of the ocean and pulling it on deck are remarkably low tech (yet still very impressive). Once we have spotted the OBS floating on the surface, the ship drives alongside. It is akin to driving your car up next to a ping-pong ball. People lean over the starboard side of the Langseth and attempt to attach a hook with rope to the bars on top of the OBS using a long pole. Its not always easy since the OBS is bobbing up and down in the waves. Once we hook it, we can attach a rope to the winch and haul the OBS onboard. Sometimes, OBS’s bring back surprises – an octopus returned with one of our OBS’s! He was alive and healthy, so we returned him to the sea (though some lobbied to keep him for lunch…)
Happily, we recovered 100% of our OBS’s and have started to (briefly!) pore over the data they recorded while they were on the seafloor. We can see the arrivals of sound waves from our air guns as well as lots of earthquakes, some very close and others far away. It would be delightful to dig into the analysis of these data immediately, but it must wait – there is more data to collect! We’re currently deploying OBS’s along our second profile.
On July 2, we finished deploying over twenty ocean-bottom seismometers as a part of our marine expedition to study a major tectonic boundary offshore Alaska. Ocean bottom seismometers (OBS’s) are autonomous instruments that sit on the seafloor and record sound waves traveling through the earth and the water. Floats made from glass balls and syntactic foam make each OBS buoyant, but an anchor holds it on the seafloor during the study. We communicate with each OBS acoustically, allowing us to send it a command to release from its anchor when we are ready to recover it.
For our project, we are placing OBS’s from Scripps Institution of Oceanography on the seafloor along two lines that span the major offshore fault zone. Immediately prior to deployment, we assemble the main components of each OBS on deck while the ship transits between sites. When we arrive at the deployment site, the ship slows down, and the OBS is lifted over the side of the vessel and into the water with a large crane. We release it, and it sinks to the sea floor. Thanks to the skill and hard work of the Scripps OBS team and the ship’s crew, we were able to deploy one OBS every hour, which is very efficient!
The larger the distance between the sound source (earthquakes or air guns) and the seismometer, the deeper into the earth the recorded sound waves travel. OBS are very sensitive and not attached to the vessel, so they can record sound waves generated very far away by earthquakes or air guns (commonly >200 km). Because we want to examine deep fault zones that cause large earthquakes off Alaska, OBS are a critical part of our effort.
In a few days, after we steam back over the OBS’s generating sound waves with our air guns, we will return to retrieve them. Even after ten years of working with ocean-bottom seismometers, it never ceases to amaze me that we can throw a bundle of very sophisticated electronics over the side of the ship and hope to pick it up and retrieve useful information from it. We are very excited about the new insights that will be provided by the data recorded on these instruments…
Each morning starts the same in the Andes: the frost is heavy on the insides of our tents and falls with the slightest movement, while the realization that it´s going to be a freezing exit from the sleeping bag is tempered by gratitude that the thirteen hour night is over. Yes, sunrise in the Andes is a momentous occasion each day, one that feels a million miles away from home. Kurt typically is the first up and dutifully begins brewing fine coffee on the camp stove. Matt emerges shortly thereafter. Nobody says a word, we just stand around in the frost like cold lizards – or maybe zombies – until the sun arrives to warm us. By midday it is fearsomely hot in the sun and the down clothing is replaced by sandals and wide-brimmed hats. Then, just as one is getting used to the idea of a nice afternoon siesta, the sun drops behind the skyline and the climate is icy once again.
One thing I am reminded of daily is that here in the Cordillera Carabaya, unlike in the western Andes, we are never alone. The moraines we investigate and the valleys we explore are someone´s backyard. Herds of alpacas swamp our campsite, followed by ferocious dogs, and mining trucks, laden with gold ore from Limbani, compete with our 4 x 4 for road space. We´ve met some interesting folk here, too, such as the toothless, Quechua-speaking alpaca herder high on a moraine, to school children asking us how to pronounce derogatory words in English.
We´ve been at Aricoma a week now and, I am pleased to report, have a lot to show for it. In addition to scratty, dusty beards and admirable tans, we´ve mapped and sampled glacial deposits young and old, from the last glacial maximum right up to the present day. This work has taken us up into the high valleys, where the last remnants of glacier ice are tucked away in shady recesses above 5000 m elevation. Here, we are surrounded by imposing peaks and deep, glacial lakes of indescribable beauty. It truly is a geologist´s dream, if a cold one.
Yesterday evening, we left Kodiak aboard the R/V Marcus G. Langseth and began our 38-day-long research cruise offshore Alaska. As we left port, we were treated to clear skies, calm seas and spectacular views of Kodiak – dark grey mountains tipped with snow emerging from the lush green landscape.
Although Kodiak offered beautiful sights and delicious seafood (like locally caught halibut and scallops), our science party was eager to leave for sea. We have been waiting for the opportunity to collect these data for a long time. Our expedition was originally planned for September 2010, but there were delays in the Langseth’s schedule that would have required us to conduct our offshore study later in the fall, when the weather deteriorates. Rough seas make some marine operations more dangerous and can also reduce the quality of the data. We opted to postpone until the summer of 2011 to secure a better part of the limited weather window in this remote and northerly region.
But for some members of our science party, the wait has been much longer. In 2003, my colleagues Mladen Nedimović, Spahr Webb and the late, great John Diebold first conceived the idea for this study. Although many other scientists in our community and the National Science Foundation were very supportive of this project, it was scuppered by limited science funding and the temporary lack of a US academic seismic vessel between retiring the R/V Ewing and acquiring the R/V Langseth. But sometimes good things come to those who wait, and at long last we are setting out…
June 22, 2011
After a very cold morning in Crucero, the sun burned off the clouds to reveal the black peaks of the Cordillera Carabaya to the east. There´s not so much snow left on the hills these days, just a few glacier patches clinging to the south faces of the highest summits. Nonetheless, the vista is spectacular and Crucero by day is quite colourful, with fantastically painted buildings spaced around a busy plaza.
We had a stroke of luck today when we ran into a local man by the name of Demitrio. Demitrio was an enormous help back in 2009, helping us gain access to Aricoma and the hills beyond. This year he was all smiles and quickly ushered us into the mayor´s office, where Kurt explained (in his superior spanish) what we were doing and the objectives of our project. Now, with the town´s blessing and a signed, official-looking letter in hand, we´re about to head off to our camp at 4600 m on the shore of Aricoma.
This morning we also made our final gear acquisitions – some plastic piping to transport sediment cores back to the US for analysis. These we had to cut into sections with a small hacksaw and then split in half, a delicate and quite tiring job at this altitude, but necessary. Now, vamos a trabajar!
Seven days and eleven flights after we arrived in Alaska, we finished deploying our seismic stations onshore. Our final constellation of stations differs a little from our original plan (as always happens with field work), but achieves our main goal of instrumenting the part of the Alaska Peninsula that is nearest to our planned offshore work on the R/V Langseth. We installed our final seismic station yesterday in aptly named Cold Bay. This town sits next to a large bay with the same name and is famous for its wind. The most common damages sustained by cars and trucks here are jack-knifed doors from the wind (as I learned the hard way!).
As luck would have it, we finished deploying our seismometers just in time to catch a large earthquake (magnitude 7.2) that occurred farther west in the Aleutians around the Fox Islands. Of course we would love to immediately look at the recordings of this event on our stations, but we must wait patiently until August when we return to recover them. Many permanent seismic stations are telemetered, so data are transmitted back to scientists in near real time. But for temporary deployments like ours, the data are just written to a local disk and thus must be downloaded in person at the station.
We did have the chance to take a sneak peak at some of the data recorded at our station in Nelson Lagoon during the first few days of our deployment. Reassuringly, we saw evidence for several local earthquakes in these data, including a magnitude 3.1 near Sand Point.
Now that the onshore deployment is finished, Katie and Guy departed for home, and I soaked in some sunshine in Anchorage and started looking ahead to our upcoming research cruise. Tonight I fly to Kodiak to await the arrival of the R/V Langseth and our shipboard science party…