Lena-Delta 2013

Expedition report 2013, Weekly report from Samoylov, 23-May-2013

Wiebke and Ben download soil temperature and surface radiation data.
Wiebke, Thomas, and Ben on the north end of the island on a snowy Sunday hike.

Greetings from the North! We are Benjamin Runkle, Thomas Projs, and Wiebke Kaiser from the University of Hamburg, and have been on Samoylov Island for just over a week. We are here to study connections between the water cycle and the carbon cycle in this interesting permafrost tundra landscape. Here is an initial report on our experiences thus far. But first, a brief introduction.

I (Benjamin) am a post-doctoral research scientist in Hamburg, where I work with Jun.-Prof. Lars Kutzbach on questions of surface water hydrology, the dissolved organic matter that these surface waters contain, and the uptake and release of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4) between the landscape and the atmosphere.

This year we had the opportunity to bring two geography education students with us to the Samoylov research station. Their role is to help interpret the site's geography - how the landscape works, by which processes the snow melts - and to bring these findings later into schools around Hamburg. Thomas and Wiebke have both been to Russia before, but neither has been so far north. I think their initial immersion has provided many new experiences and feelings, and both are eager to explore and share more of this landscape with others.

Our journey here was long - we are 8000+ kilometres from Hamburg and there is nothing like a direct pathway. We flew through Moscow to Yakutsk, where we ended up waiting for a week for good enough weather in the Arctic port city of Tiksi to allow an onward flight. From Tiksi we helicoptered to Samoylov since the river's ice conditions were not stable enough to trust an over-ice vehicle.

Our arrival on the island allowed us to see the effects of a few warm days - melted water, open ponds, and little snow beyond wind-blown banks. There was more surface water flowing out of our measurement points than at any time since they were installed last summer. However, all this open water soon re-froze as we entered a week of cold and wind and snow.

Our goals here are to study how the snow melts and to see how this meltwater transforms into streams and rivulets across the polygon surface, flowing eventually towards the branches of the Lena that surround us. In the field we observe where water is flowing, and try to quantify how much is moving

We take samples of this water back to the laboratories on the island and in Germany so that we can further characterize its chemistry. For example, we are interested to learn how much of the organic-rich soils dissolve some of their carbon into the water, and how many micro-nutrients this water contains. During the frozen period, we have the chance to take stock of how much snow and ice are in different parts of the landscape - these stores of water are essentially the fuel for later flows. We have also used this frozen period to take some soil and pond-ice cores so that we can measure the nutrients in the frozen soil. This data may be useful to help understand the concentrations of these nutrients in the waters that we later sample.

We look forward to a warmer set of weeks so that we can really see the transformation of this mostly frozen landscape into a flowing set of waterways. We also await the big spring flood of the Lena River. Yesterday that flood was above the city of Yakutsk but still more than 1000 km upstream from the delta. The flood may or may not arrive this far north before we leave in early June...we will just have to wait and see.

Expedition report 2013, Bird-watching on Samoylov (29.05.13)

Lapland bunting (Calcarius lapponicus)
Male Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

In our second week at Samoylov we started a new hobby: bird watching. Our first week in the tundra was still winter. Outside was almost no life – we could only listen to the cackle of grouse and sometimes it was even possible to see some. And around the house flew a few snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). We ended our winter activities with drilling frozen soil cores for later nutrient analysis: very exhausting. But suddenly the sun appeared. The spring started and the island became a new island. The snow upon the mossy tundra disappeared very quickly. Our spring hydrology work began: we defined a classification scheme of different polygon melting types and classified a transect from the eddy tower to the weirs.

With the sun came the life. Every day we saw new birds. Over the island flew the first migrant birds like geese and swans, but only in small groups of three to eight birds. And the first seagulls were visible, especially at the open pond-like parts of the Lena. But after a few days they became more in number and now, after a short visit of the snowy winter again, we can see groups of up to 50 birds. Since a few days ago here there are furthermore a lot of wading birds like different species of Calidris or Charadrius hiaticula. At the floodplain is a lot of life! And in the tundra we can observe the funny flights of Calcarius lapponicus.

Moreover we have seen some special bigger birds like a pair of buzzards (Buteo lagopus), a skua (Stercorarius pomarinus) and a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). They are all predators of lemmings and so it is no surprise that we are able to see these tiny cute animals now almost every day.

The new species of today was Philomachus pugnax, which were roosting right next to our measurement weirs, where now a lot of water is flowing. The level of the Lena water is higher than last week, but it is still quiet and calm and so we are still expecting the flood.

Expedition report 2013, Spring stories, 31.05.13

Ben & Thomas get ready to drill a core

Hello,

this is Wiebke, Ben and Thomas again (Thomas reporting). We're still on Samoylov – as we are surrounded by an increasing amount of water and it’s hard to escape. The Lena slowly rises and we are impatiently waiting for the big spring flood. Already we can see some bigger icebergs from time to time, sometimes crashing into others of their kind, creating an impressive noise that lets us realize the big force of the silent water flow.

On one of our walks by the Lena riverside we found an old shoulder blade bone that was washed up by the flood and probably comes from the older island of Kurugnahk, where several mammoth bones have been found in previous expeditions. Unfortunately our find is too small to have come from an adult mammoth. But then, on the other hand, the river also brings plastic bottles from over four thousands kilometers further south: empty messages from civilization.

Samoylov, which had seemed a bit like the Nordic legendary Helheim when snow-covered, with little vegetation and the cemetery-like polygons, now is awaking to life. With temperatures above zero, less wind and the indefatigable sun of the polar day, the moss becomes softer and greener; from time to time a lemming runs between our yellow rubber boots and we can see more and more birds passing by. Some of them are even confident enough about their dancing skills to let us watch their courting ceremony.

Closer to the birds’ routes and further away from the always frozen permafrost we are on the Eddy-tower; a scientific measuring tower positioned in the centre of the island and draped with measuring sensors like a Christmas tree. It measures gas fluxes, temperatures and humidity as fast as twenty times per second and feeds with them the computer mind on its bottom; but is also useful as a lookout point for the insatiable eyes of our cameras. It allows us to overview the island and get an idea of the differences in the relief.

To get to the opposite direction of where the tower leads us, we need to drill into the frozen ground, which we do with a special German coring-machine. We need all our force and weight to get some few decimeters into the permafrost – and the prize of our sweat is a frozen core-sausage with some different soil-layers.

We use the spiritual power of the tundra to get rid of our unconscious aggressiveness and help the sun in its fight against the ice by breaking it; to free the three weirs, on which we measure the amount of melting water from the snow. We sample the water to get an idea about the amount of nutrients; or we just let its sound run through our ears, having a nap in the sun – as the temperatures awake the mammal in the homo scientist sapiens, and our remaining rests of hibernation... Or you can just say that we are also “sampling time” and discovering the tundra with more senses then with only our intellect; for, according to the words of F. Hölderlin: poor are the people when they think – but godlike when they dream...

Greetings from the Siberian tundra,
Wiebke, Ben and Tom

Expedition report 2013, The Lena Flood, 5.6.2013 - almost spring –

Last week began with a spell of warm weather, melting ice on the island and on the frozen Lena River, and led eventually to the arrival of this spring’s flood to the Lena River Delta. In this post we describe this flood’s arrival and now aftermath on our island. Samoylov Island is composed of two major geographical parts: the Holocene terrace covered by ice-crack polygon structures and the sandy modern floodplain.  In the last week we have seen much of the modern floodplain covered in water, and many of the cliffs descending from the flood terrace erode into the rushing water.  This flood is the result of the slow movement of water melting northwards, generating large ice blocks and dams across the Lena.  The flood moves north in fits and spurts, as the accumulated snow of central Yakutia melts and moves into the once-frozen river channels.

In the middle of last week there was a little thunderstorm. During the next days it became colder – and from the North the fog arrived the next evening. Suddenly the sun was over and for the next days it was not possible to see Stolb or the other mountains surrounding the main channels of the Delta. The Lena wasn’t moving at all, and everything was quiet, though we knew from internet reports that the main spring flood event should arrive soon. But then slowly the water began to rise again – only a little bit at first. In the night to Saturday, 1 June, it started snowing again. We asked whether June can really bring winter back again!  By Saturday night we noticed that the ice is moving again along the river.

On Sunday the weather changed again. It was finally possible to see the other side of the Lena’s banks. But more importantly, the whole river changed: so many huge icebergs were moving very quickly along the river. The Lena showed almost no open water any more: everywhere was ice and so fast! It was so impressive to see this moving ice! We were outside almost the whole day – watching. And the water level was rising and rising, too. In the night the water started flooding the channel between the old and the new station, nearly turning our island into several smaller islands. This is what it feels like in a low-lying delta (and the Arctic’s largest)…you see more and more of your walking pathways flooded, and do not know when to expect the rise to end.

Monday the flood peaked.  The peak this year may have been less severe than in other years because the river channels around Samoylov had already thawed out, allowing our local collection of ice to drift away before the arrival of the main flood. By Monday evening it seemed that the water level again fell a little bit with less ice passing, but still moving quickly. We put on our rubber boots, dragged out our GPS and notebook, and walked the extent of this year’s flood so that this summer’s scientists working on the modern floodplain will know which parts were inundated by the flood.

Now, two days later, most of the moving ice has passed us, but the flood has left its mark.  The cliffs off of the polygon terrace are a bit more eroded, there are large ice bergs remnant on the coasts and beaches, and a new source of nutrients and water has been delivered to a large portion of this island. 

Expedition report 2013, visiting Tiksi students, 7.6.2013 – on the way home –

Drawing for an art competition
Group picture at the Tiksi activities centre

Our expedition is finished now. But before we say goodbye we want to tell you about our last days on Samoylov Island and our experiences in the little town Tiksi located at the Polar Sea. In our last days on the island, the winter came back. The peak of the Lena flood was over and slowly the water fell a little bit every day. All water on the island was frozen again as on our first days at Samoylov. So it was impossible to measure the amount of flowing water at the weirs any more.

It was time to leave the island. But due to snow, fog and storm (at the beginning of June!) it was only possible for the helicopter to come with one day delay. Finally we arrived to Tiksi and the next day it was the same: there was so much snow (5 cm) the morning we wanted to fly to Yakutsk. Instead of driving to the airport we visited the local school’s activity centre. This was a nice welcome and great possibility to get in contact with the local population.

From the beginning of June till September the pupils have summer holidays, but still a group of pupils was there. As an introduction we told them what we have done in the Lena Delta and showed some pictures of our drilling activities. They were astonished about this and said that it’s impossible to dig into the soil. Afterwards they answered a lot of our questions and showed us some videos about their outdoor activities. It seemed that they have a lot of fun with their scout experiences and love camping already in April! When we asked them if it’s possible to play outside in the winter, they were laughing about our stupid questions – of course it’s possible! The only restriction is if there is too much wind. This also reflected our growing understandings of temperature: the thermometer reading doesn’t display the temperature as it is felt. There can be big differences.

Furthermore it was impressive to see the nice art products which covered all walls. All the pictures and collage art demonstrate the polar life, flora and fauna. In the end we had the impression that we have seen a lot of happy kids who were proud of their city and seemed to have a very nice childhood in a small environment. I want to say Thank you to Katia Abramova and Nastya  Ananeva for their translation help and Natasha Gukov for her friendly reception! This was a nice ending to our great expedition to the Arctic world.

Saying “Good-Bye” at the school was very short because we finally got there the call telling us to get immediately ready for the airport. The rest of our journey home was without any more adventures and we safely came home to Germany. Good Bye!