Letters from Kytalyk – Part I

Letters from Kytalyk – Part I

If you’re reading this, it means that my supervisor Monique managed to bring my blog back to the Netherlands on a USB stick to post it for me. I am still working hard on the wide, pristine and internet-free Siberian tundra and will be back with more stories around the second half of August.

June 28th – A Warm Welcome in the Tundra

Today we did the last stretch of our journey to the station. We were brought to the airport by our partners of the IBPC. Here we had to conclude that our lost bag was still in Moscow, and apparently, I was booked on another flight that day than Monique and Daniël. So, after some moments of confusion and stress, all went well and we landed in Chokurdakh, although I landed several hours later than the rest. The flights to Chokurdakh are operated by small, old-fashioned aircrafts and the view from the plane is like a crash course in permafrost geomorphology. Chokurdakh is a village of about 2000 people (and many more dogs) and the last settlement before the field station. We had to register with the local army base (since technically our station is in a military zone) and run some errands to resupply the station. With our luggage and the groceries, we boarded a speedboat and enjoyed the spectacular view from the Indigirka and Berelekh rivers. Usually it gets awfully cold on the boat, but this spring has been extremely hot so far and the boat ride was quite comfortable. We were all surprised to see how dry the tundra was this year; apparently the heat during spring had been rather severe. It is an enormous contrast with last year, when I arrived in a cloudy, chilly and misty tundra. All the lakes, floodplains and thermokarst ponds were fully submerged then and the permafrost hadn’t melted very far yet. There were even small patches of snow left. This year, the floodplains are dry and many of the small ponds are also almost dry. Even the permafrost seems to have melted deeper already. Impossible to predict what this will imply for our monitoring sites, but also rather interesting.

The airport of Chokurdakh, and my favourite kind of car

June 30th – Dry!

In the previous year I initiated an irrigation experiment, describing the effects of extreme summer rainfall on permafrost stability. To do so, I irrigated small plots of dwarf shrub vegetation with water from local ponds and gullies using a motor pump. We were still considering repeating the treatment this year, at least in half of the plots. But sometimes nature makes decisions for you; due to the drought, there aren’t enough waterbodies left to get irrigation water from. So one summer of irrigation treatment will have to do, and this year we will see whether the effects last over multiple years. We also had our first “banya day”. There are no showers at the station, so instead we have a weekly sauna session (banya is a Russian sauna), followed by some beers or tea.

Eriophorum vaginatum catching some late-night sunrays

July 2nd – The Permafrost Horror

A strange experience today, when I was installing divers in several thaw ponds and polygon troughs. Maybe I read too much Lovecraft and watch too many horror films, but I had a sudden experience of eldritch horror when I was standing thigh deep in a polygon trough with my arms under water to attach a diver to a pole. I was somehow convinced that a kind of horrible Cthulhu monster, thawed from the permafrost, was lurking somewhere beneath the deep, cold, black water. I don’t think I have ever installed a device faster than I did then, and I ran off to go do some relatively “safe” vegetation inventories. Luckily, I won’t have to remove the devices until about 6 weeks later.

 July 3rd – Luggage + Fruit + Puppies

I was just making a phone call from a nearby little hill (where you can pick up some signal), when a boat arrived. The boat was loaded with cargo for researchers of the Free University of Amsterdam, who are renovating their meteorological tower on the site this year. But, to our enormous relief, our lost bag was also on the boat. It had been delivered to Chokurdakh airport and put on the speedboat for us. I ran to the boat, but when I approached it I lost all my interest in the lost luggage, because two puppies were carried from the boat and put down right next to the luggage. I still do not know why they were sent here, but this has been happening more often at our site. No shortage of dogs and other pets in Chokurdakh, and apparently some of them are sent over to the field station for a holiday. So today we have all been “oohing” and “aahing” around the puppies. At lunch the next day, another surprise came. The kid of the station cook had his eighth birthday today and apparently the boat also brought some fresh fruit and a cake, things that are quite rare around these parts. Last year I was craving fresh fruit so badly after a month, and this year I got some during my first week. This is promising.

July 5th – Close Encounters of the Thawed Kind

My PhD mostly revolves around the development of thaw ponds; isolated small waterbodies resulting from local melting of ground ice. Using satellite images from several years back I identified older and younger thaw ponds of various sizes and expansion trends and there I laid out small permanent plots to monitor the development of abiotic conditions and vegetation composition. Last year we found very clear trends between permafrost status and vegetation composition, indicating a possible vegetation succession mechanism in ponds that is linked to permafrost degradation and aggradation. Now we will continue monitoring for the coming years to gather data on this mechanism and assess rates of change. Monique, Daniël and I walk around taking measurements of the abiotic conditions in our thaw ponds. Later we will assess vegetation composition and take gas samples to assess methane emissions. Daniël and I both have intimate encounters with our study object as we step off a boardwalk and find out the ponds are too deep for our waders.

Measuring soil moisture and thermal conductivity in a thaw pond from a boardwalk

Coming back to the station we hear about some other close encounters. The Polish team of paleoecologists saw muskoxen appear at only five meters distance as they were hidden by sight by a steep lake shore when sampling a core. Muskoxen have been introduced in this area about twenty years ago, and we see them more and more often, although mostly at large distances. They also show us a picture of a bear’s footprint in the mud. It is a little scary that a bear apparently walked by at only two kilometres away from the station quite recently.

As I return late in the evening after installing some gas flux collars, the station manager Sergey calls us in. Some rangers of the local nature inspection and their families are visiting the station for the weekend and we are treated to fresh, raw fish and some sort of homemade alcohol (which sounds intense but is not bad at all actually). We toast to a good fieldwork season.

Boardwalk, late at night (but no darkness here for the coming time)

July 7th – Bear and Mammoth Hunt

Since a week or so it is complete over with the hot spring weather and it is in fact quite cold, barely 10 degrees. Of course we had to see the bear prints for ourselves, so on our first free day we walk over to the lakeside where the Polish team saw them. We find three prints in the mud. One of the locals told us that mammoth bones may be found at the lakeside as well, but these we did not find. This exposure in the lake’s shore that I mentioned earlier shows some enormous ice wedges, which were not visible in earlier years but become more and more exposed due to thawing and erosion.

Ice wedges and bear prints

July 10th – Gas

The weather changed completely again, which it often does around here. We now try to do our methane sampling under very hot and mosquito-infested conditions, which is a challenge. Everyone has a permanent swarm of hundreds of mosquitoes around them and keeping every tiny bit of skin covered in mosquito-proof clothing, a mosquito-net or DEET is the only way to get some work done these days. Luckily not all days are like these. The gas sampling is more or less my little pet project, and since we did not have a portable gas flux analyser like we’ve been able to use in previous years, we have designed and built collars and chambers and we sample gases manually in pre-vacuumed bottles. So I travelled here with several trays of vacuumed bottles and a DIY kit to build transparent chambers, which I found rather stressful and exciting, but actually everything seems operational right now. I am extremely curious to see some lab results, but unfortunately I’ll have to wait for over month and the bottles have three more airplanes to survive…

Our gas flux chambers, mosquitoes sunbathing on my knee

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