Letters from Kytalyk – Part II

‘Tis done. Seven of hard work in a remote corner of the world have been completed and it even looks like most things went according to plan. We are slowly trying to re-adjust to society and dealing with some last aftermath. Below are some stories from the past month.

July 19th – Fish in Various Disguises

Working at the Chokurdakh station is also a great way to experience Yakutian cuisine. With only a wood stove and a river as sources of energy and water, the cook here does a great job. Cooking in this manner is a real day task, which is why we do not do it ourselves. Apart from a lot of rice and pasta and everything that comes in a can, we get a lot of fresh fish directly from the river. Exactly which part of the fish we get on each day, and in which form (raw? breaded? soup? you name it!), is a surprise and yet another demonstration of the creativity of the cook. The most famous example of regional food is “Indigirka salad”, which is pieces of frozen, raw fish, sometimes served with onion or garlic. In a way this kind of frozen sushi seems appropriate for a region that’s on the same longitude as Japan, but much further north.

Speaking of frozen – I should have known better than to complain about the heat earlier. Last week the temperatures rose to almost thirty degrees, but the past week it has dropped to around five or even lower during the day. Working outside all day has become a challenge and working in the heat last week feels like it happened on a different planet. Our focus shifted from gas sampling and abiotic measurements to vegetation and microtopography analysis. Previously the work of my research group at the Chokurdakh station has relied mostly on manual measurements, such as vegetation inventories and thawing depth measurements. There are several reasons for this. It can be a hassle to get electronic equipment through customs and obtain the necessary permits in time, but apart from that you have to use your equipment on a site with no internet, (practically) no help and no reliable energy source. But since I am secretly a little bit of a tech geek I try to find the best combination of manual work and high-tech solutions. The past week we’ve been alternating between point intercept vegetation assessments, which involves a lot of manual labour, and topographical analysis using an RTK-GNSS. It has been quite a lot of work to obtain customs clearance and permits for this system, which relies on radio communication between two GPS stations to obtain centimetre to millimetre precision positioning. But this way we can measure year to year changes in microtopography in relation to thermokarst processes, and in turn link this to shifts in vegetation composition.

The RTK-GNSS in action. In this polygon trough the elevation difference was already rather obvious.

July 21st – Mysterious Objects on the Tundra

Some new structures appeared on the tundra this year, and this place is becoming a real scientists’ playground. Apart from myself and the others from Wageningen University, teams from the Free University of Amsterdam and the University of Zürich work here each year on long term projects and both have installed large, new infrastructure for their experiments. Team Zürich has been building an automated irrigation and drought treatment setup, using shingles on roofs to intercept and redirect precipitation automatically. After the dry and hot period earlier this summer, we can now see the system in action after each rain event, intercepting part of the rain from one plot and supplying it to another to mimic drier and wetter summers.

Precipitation shelters in the mist

Team Amsterdam is completely updating the meteorological tower and eddy flux tower they operate on the site. The scope of this project was already clear when we saw the amount of cargo loaded of a small speedboat arriving at the station earlier. The prospect of having access to a large amount of meteorological data is very good news for all universities involved in long term research at the Chokurdakh station.

All this infrastructure gives the tundra an extra-terrestrial appearance at night

July 28th – Cranespotting

Sundays are our relaxing day, and we use them to sleep a little longer and to go for hikes around the station. This usually means climbing of the many ridges or pingos in the otherwise incredibly flat area. Today we inflated the rowing boat to go explore some features on the other side of the Berelekh river, hoping to cross some items of our bucket list (rare Siberian cranes, mammoth bones, a bear…). You never get what you expect though, so no boxes were ticked on the list. We did however find our first ripe cloudberries and enjoyed some very nice views. It is in fact starting to become autumn here, so the sun almost dips below the horizon and the light is visibly changing, with beautiful orange skies and fog in the evenings.

Rowing adventure
With views like this you hardly miss the cranes
Cloudberries, photographed 10 seconds before they were eaten

July 30th – Poke it with a stick

We have finished our point intercept vegetation analysis. A very happy moment because we were about fed up with it. We used a grid system of 100 cells of 5×5 cm, installed on 5 subsites in 24 locations, which means that we have lowered the stick and recorded species hits 12,000 (!) times. The dataset will be used for Daniёl’s master thesis to compare vegetation composition and abiotic conditions between different types of thermokarst features. For me as one of his supervisors it was also a very educative experience and I have definitely learned to identify the majority of species in our research area. We took specimens of some trickier ones back home with us. In fact all the vascular plants are quite easy to distinguish in the field, but the majority of species hits are mosses and lichens, of which we had to take many samples home for closer inspection.

Hardcore research action

August 2nd –DIY “Drone

Who says you need a drone to make ultra-high-resolution aerial photography? Just ducttape your camera to a 4m selfie pole, install a remote control and go for it! By measuring some ground control points and taking a high number of overlapping photos of thermokarst features we hope to be able to make elevation models during the coming years and observe changes in vegetation composition and microtopography.

You never get this kind of bird’s eye view of your plots normally, but it makes for interesting photographs

August 4th – Kitchen Duty

The most important person you’ll find at a research station is the cook. Unfortunately ours had to leave today, so I got to experience what it takes to feed the inhabitants of the station. It took me about three hours to collect some paper and firewood, get a fire going in the stove, fetch water from the river and make lunch for four. Especially the pancakes and homemade cloudberry jam were appreciated, and I fear that I may be put on permanent cooking duty now.

High tech equipment in the kitchen

August 7th – Moment of Truth

With the forced termination of our irrigation treatment, it was very exciting for me to see whether our irrigation treatment of last summer would lead to lasting effects in the summer after. Last summer I supplied 100mm of extra precipitation to 10 tundra plots, with 10 control sites nearby. This resulted in increased thawing depths in irrigated plots during that same summer. I used a motor pump system to irrigate the plots with water from local ponds and gullies. We wanted to repeat the treatment this year in half of the plots. But due to the drought, there weren’t enough waterbodies left to get irrigation water from so we had to stop the treatment. We did not see any difference in thawing depth between treatment and control sites at the beginning of this summer, but like last summer I monitored thawing depths throughout the summer and we were all excited to see what would happen. Interestingly, the plots that were irrigated last year still reached significantly larger thawing depths in August the year after, even without continuation of the treatment. This implies that extreme summer rainfall may not only have consequences during that same summer, but also in years to follow. So it seems we will want to continue monitoring next year as well!

August 14th – Ups and Downs in an Otherwise Rather Flat Area

Some last sunny and relatively mosquito-free days with enjoyable walks, but also some last difficulties during our last days at the Chokurdakh station. Daniёl, Elena from Zurich University and I spent one afternoon picking cloudberries, which yielded 9 large jars of delicious jam and an interesting cloudberry vodka cocktail. The jars are going to be presents for those who helped us in Yakutsk and Chokurdakh and our parents and colleagues, but the cocktails were consumed last weekend and drastically reduced work efficiency the day after.

Jam factory. Our jam comes in typical Russian ” Uncle Vanya” salad jars

We also think we may have crossed “finding mammoth bones” of the bucket list, since we found a large amount of bones and a piece of tusk in an undercut yedoma deposit. Some of the bones seem large enough to have belonged to a mammoth and we found a piece that may be tusk, apart from many other interesting bones and teeth of large grazers. We hope to be able to have them inspected by staff of the mammoth museum in Yakutsk to see what exactly it is that we found.

A collection of interesting bones, and a fox trap

The last difficulty we faced was a field laptop that suddenly died completely without warning, and we had to spend many evenings messing around with various kinds of cables and tiny screwdrivers to see what can be saved. We also had to call to Yakutsk to have a USB stick with software drivers for a backup laptop sent to us by airplane and brought to the station by speedboat with the last groceries delivery of the season. This seemed like a desperate measure but it worked out perfectly. We managed to finish all our laptop-dependent work. If I can give one piece of advice to researchers working in remote areas; prepare a USB stick with executables and drivers for any software that you depend on. Luckily we have made backups of all our research data on various external disks, so the major thing that we are still trying to save are my photographs, which were on the field laptop. (Fast forward 2 days: from the fact that this blog contains photographs you can tell that I managed. I also gained knowledge on the inside architecture of laptops and various kinds of cables and chips that I didn’t know existed).

Our last day was spent hiking 15 kilometres through swamplands to reach some hills towards the east on which we saw thaw slumps with our binoculars. Absolutely worth the flooded boots.

Imagine the sound of dripping water and the occasional splash of falling mud

This concludes my fieldwork blog for 2019. Thanks to the TA grant from INTERACT, my supervisor Monique and Daniёl could join me on this adventure. This means everything for my research; three people always know more than one, and sometimes you simply need three pairs of hands to get everything done. Apart from that it is always wonderful to meet researchers in other fields and from other countries at the station. This whole adventure, with all its transport, permits, customs procedures and other logistics also wouldn’t have been possible without the help and dedication of the people at the IBPC in Yakutsk and the Nature Inspection of the Allaikhovsky region.

An illustration of the necessity of having more than one pair of hands.
Photo by Sergey Karsanaev.

2 thoughts on “Letters from Kytalyk – Part II

  1. Frida

    Love it. All of it. Brought back some happy memories too. Dogs got prettier. Thanks for writing these blogs! /Frida

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