August 7: A Quick Math Lesson

Posted in Uncategorized on August 7, 2009 by siberia2009

140 kilograms. That is the magic number.

We have 140 kilograms of rocks, plus or minus a kilogram here or there, and Priority Number One is getting them home to Boston. In previous posts, we have verged on sappiness in describing our affection for each and every sample that we have taken. These feelings could be compared to the first few hours after taking a new puppy home. Our feelings have now shifted to those subsequent days when the puppy pees all over the rug and chews up your expensive leather couch. Getting the samples was the relatively simple part. We now have to get them home.

We are currently staying with Volodia and his family in Moscow. The transit from Khatanga to here was a blur of lifting and lugging: for the past four days we have been carrying boxes of rocks (plus the rest of our gear) up and down staircases, in and out of trucks with no brake pads, and to and from decrepit, rear-loading, ham-sandwich-filled Soviet airplanes. Volodia’s apartment is on the 18th floor. Thank you Mr. Otis for inventing elevators. Volodia’s building has one of your original prototypes.

Volodia’s excellent apartment, despite our efforts to be good guests, is rapidly filling up with the expanding sample-packing operation we have set in motion.

Roma and Volodia have spent many hours obtaining the necessary permissions and documents for us to take “some” “basalts” out of Russia. These documents total 8 pages, with some very impressive stamps. They indicate that we can take roughly 8 kilos of rocks apiece:

    8 for Seth  
+ 8 for Ben    
16 kilos of rocks

16 … does not equal 140. However, as we have learned at MIT, the square root of 144 is twelve and twelve is obviously less than sixteen. Since most of the samples are slightly squareish in shape, and the difference between twelve and sixteen is four, which is the number of bags we can each check… We think we’re golden.

In order to convince Russian customs of this, we have decided to do a bit of creative packing. This afternoon at the flea market near Volodia’s building, we cleaned out the inventory of a surprised duffel-bag vendor. We kept setting aside the duffels we wanted to buy, and the vendor, thinking we only wanted one and were just leaving what we didn’t want on the floor behind us, kept replacing the duffels on the shelf. Finally we conveyed to her that we really wanted to buy all of them.

Ben (waving his arms to indicate English was about to be spoken): No no, we want all!
Vendor (looking incredulous): Щто? (What?) Da?
Ben: Da.

For a very good price, we became the delighted owners of six new sports-themed duffel bags. Our ingenious plan is to fill each bag with equal parts clothes and rocks, hoping that our smelly t-shirts will mask the presence of just a few paltry rocks as well. Volodia thinks it’s an excellent plan.

At the airport in Krasnoyarsk... Roma is waving, and you can barely make out Seth's Giants hat behind our mountain of baggage.

At the airport in Krasnoyarsk... Roma is waving, and you can barely make out Seth's Giants hat behind our mountain of baggage.


Now that we’re back in Moscow, we’d like to extend a last big thank-you to Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who for the past month has been the link between us writing this blog in the field and you reading it on the internet. Thanks a million Lindy!


August 3: Fat and Happy–Hurricanes Ben and Seth Slam the Port City of Khatanga

Posted in Uncategorized on August 3, 2009 by siberia2009

Wind-driven chop on the Maymecha River, near 71.2N, 99.4E, in Arctic Siberia

Wind-driven chop on the Maymecha River, near 71.2N, 99.4E, in Arctic Siberia

Today we have eaten four bars of chocolate, two fat-heavy packages of Russian ham, a brick of orange cheese, two bundles of string cheese, dried fish (shaped like a stick), salted raw fish, boiled chicken, four cubes of white sugar (on Seth’s tab), pasta cooked until mushy, Pringles, one liter of Orange Fanta, two liters of Baltika beer, one liter of Sprite, one box of cereal (with milk), 23 baranke (hard bread rings), one loaf of slightly stale bread, one jar of pickles, and a box of passionfruit Tic-Tacs. If the stores in Khatanga were still open, the chocolate, Fanta, and string cheese tallies would probably rise, despite the churning, violated feeling in our stomachs right now.

Five days ago, we finished our last full day of geology. That was July 30. The next morning, we woke up to the sound of heavy rain and strong wind against or tents. Despite the wind and rain, we had to start paddling. 100 kilometers downstream, a diesel-powered freight boat would be waiting for us on the evening of August 2nd. Our job was to get there by then, regardless of conditions.

Ordinarily, 100 kilometers on a fairly big river wouldn’t be much of a problem (especially for a cadre of strapping, well-built, chisel-jawed geologists such as ourselves). But the water level on the Maymecha is lower than locals have ever seen it, meaning there is very little current. The combination of no current and a relentless headwind meant that when we didn’t paddle hard, we were pushed back upriver. In the long open stretches, the wind-chop was up to two feet and breaking over the bows of our Siberian Sloops. Progress was miserably slow.

Volodia likes to finish the majority of a day’s paddling before stopping for lunch. As a result, we paddled from about nine AM until five PM before pausing for lunch and then continuing on until ten. After two days of this we had covered only slightly more than half the distance to our goal. For breakfast on the morning of August 2nd, we ate literally the last of our food: two packages of powdered soup mix and a can of corn. Then we shoved off, knowing that we couldn’t stop until we got to that boat.

At seven in the evening, we arrived where we thought the freight boat should have been waiting. There was no boat. We kept paddling.

Ben: Is that a boat? I think that’s a boat…
Seth, in a hunger-agitated state: No!!! It’s another &$#@ing rock!

In Ben’s defense, there were many boat-shaped rocks. Finally we spotted the actual freighter anchored in the distance. Roma and Anya, on the cataraft, towed us the last kilometer and a half with the staggering power of their 3.5 hp Tohatsu motor.

Seth: I think this deserves a Yeeee-HAW!
Ben, attempting to make a Yee-haw: Eeeeeuuuuuuwwaaaoooo!

We packed our rafts, loaded our gear and samples onto the freighter, and shoved off for the ten hour trip back down to Khatanga. As soon as we went to our bunks belowdeck, Roma unveiled the sliced ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, and cheese that he had asked the boat to bring for all of us. If the crew of the freighter hadn’t been looking on, Seth would have let out another piercing Yee-haw.

Maybe we have made the paddling sound a bit dramatic, and the freighter/food sound a bit euphoric. But seriously–the paddling sucked and the food was incredible.

So that’s how we got to Khatanga this morning. As you know from the first paragraph, the next thing we did was put a hurting on the local stockpile of processed food.

Now we start trying to work our way back to Boston with our precious samples (more on these soon–get excited!). Tomorrow we expect to fly from Khatanga to Krasnoyarsk, then on the 6th from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow, and sometime after that back to the U.S.A.

July 31: Post from editor

Posted in Uncategorized on July 31, 2009 by siberia2009

We hear via satellite phone that the last geological samples have been gathered, including some exciting tuff samples indicating explosive eruptions. The team is rowing their boats 100 km down the Maymecha river to its mouth where a motor launch will meet them. The weather has been a bit stormy. The one outboard motor is out of gas (!), so the headwinds are a difficulty. It’s one of these expedition moments that you groan about at the time and, I hope, laugh about later!

They are expecting to be in Khatanga by the 4th of August, and possibly in Moscow as early as the 7th, depending on connecting flights. It’s not possible to buy the connecting flights at the Khatanga airport, so as we did last year they will fly to Krasnoyarsk and then buy the first available tickets to Moscow.

We’ll keep you posted on their progress down the river!

July 27: Mosquitoes Are Protein Too

Posted in Uncategorized on July 27, 2009 by siberia2009
Roma, Anton, and Anya celebrating Roma's birthday

Roma, Anton, and Anya celebrating Roma's birthday

Two of the things we think about most out here are (1) geology and (2) food. Since the last post focused on geology, it follows that this post will revolve almost entirely around our caloric intake over the past twenty four hours. We chose to post this now because today was Roma’s birthday. In celebration of his turning 29, we have consumed some out-of-the-norm Siberian delicacies.

For those of you might have missed this, Roma is an experienced paleomagnetist who has spent the last decade working field seasons in Siberia.  Anya is his student and has also spent a considerable amount of time doing field work in the Traps. Volodia Pavlov, also a seasoned paleomagnetist, has been working longer than he cares to mention up and down the various Siberian rivers. And Anton, who knows an amazing joke about hunting geologists, is Volodia’s student and manages to traverse the most treacherous outcrops in a battered pair of sneakers. It’s thanks to them that we have not starved to death, stranded ourselves in the river, or picked a lunch spot right under an unstable rock overhang.

We started the birthday celebration last night at 12:01 when we (Ben and Seth) surprised Roma and Anton at their tent with two squares of chocolate–a veerry precious comodity. Seth had bored a hole in the middle of the chocolate just large anough to fit a rolled-up piece of paper, which served as the solitary birthday candle. After lighting the candle, we sang a stirring rendition of happy birthday to a bleary-eyed Roma, who thanked us, smiled for a picture, ate his present, and promptly went back to sleep.

We woke this morning to a hollered “zaaaaaftrak!!” Which roughly translates to breaaaakfast!!! Anya had woken up early to make pancakes over the fire. Amazing. From deep in pits of the bags sequestered on her boat, she summoned flour, salt, and condensed milk–all the makings of a fantastic morning. After consuming a ridiculous amount, we packed up all our things and prepared for a bloated float down the Maymecha towards the mouth of the Delkan river, our final stop.

The current has been slow in the river. It took several hours to reach a cliff exposure of Maymechites (a very magnesium-rich rock). After a bit of geology, we were charged with building the fire and preparing lunch. It was not quite late enough for supper (only 5 pm) and we had obviously already eaten breakfast, so Volodia wanted to know the word for breakfast and lunch combined–we said brunch–he said BRUNCH!!–Siberian brunch is now in the lexicon. We prepared a delightful vegetable-broth soup with wild onion, carrots, egg noodles, tushonka (which means canned beef and beef accessories), canned peas, and many boiled mosquitoes. After tea and small-talk, down the river we went.

Dinner tonight was, as usual, a feast. Spiral noodles cooked in tandem with the lovely vegetable broth, tushonka (2 cans), canned peas, dehydrated carrots, and many, many dead mosquitoes. To this fantastic combination we added mustard, ketchup, raw garlic, parmesan cheese, hot sauce, mayonnaise, raw pork fat (Volodia’s favorite), more mosquitoes, and a splash of 100% deet bug spray for good measure. With dinner winding down, Anya slipped away quickly and returned triumphantly with a three layer, home-made birthday cake. Between each layer of ginger-like cake was a healthy helping of boiled condensed milk, which tasted for the most part like caramel. The cake was also topped with this spread and decorative concentric circles of a frosted-flake analog. After dessert, we presented Roma with a new chisel wreathed in locally grown wild-flowers and a pair of sunglasses plus headstrap that he, in his own words, “has been dreaming about.”

We are now laying fat and happy in our tents ready for four days of sampling in the Delkansky formation.

(Editor: For good measure, here is a photo of Roma’s birthday in 2008, when we were already back in Khatanga waiting to fly out)

Ben, Roma, Anya, and Brad at Roma's birthday dinner 2008 in the Khatanga Geologists' Guesthouse (photo: Elkins-Tanton)

Ben, Roma, Anya, and Brad at Roma's birthday dinner 2008 in the Khatanga Geologists' Guesthouse (photo: Elkins-Tanton)

July 25: Do We Really Want To Sample This? Well… Maybe Just A Little Bit.

Posted in Uncategorized on July 25, 2009 by siberia2009
Camp on the Maymecha River

Camp on the Maymecha River

As we raft down the Maymecha through these immense layers of igneous rock, it has been impossible not to marvel at how much is still unknown about the Siberian Traps. Even aside from the dramatic questions surrounding a potential connection between the Siberian Traps and the end-Permian extinction, there are countless other unknowns at an absolutely fundamental level.

The timing of eruption onset, the total duration of the eruption, and the rate of eruption are still not known to the maximum possible level of precision. The structure and functioning of the magmatic plumbing system remain more or less a mystery. The exact reasons that tuffs erupt during certain intervals–also the subject of debate.

Just to the north of our camp tonight, a reddish weathered fringe of dunite forms cliffs at the edge of the Maymecha River. Beyond that, reddish mountains rise against the horizon. This dunite is the outer layer of a huge layered ultramafic intrusion, the Guli Complex. Its history and relationship to the Siberian Traps are still pretty darned hazy.

Even the original cause of the Siberian Traps–why they erupted when and where they did, and why and how the volume of lava was so huge (an estimated 4,000,000 cubic kilometers or more, according to Fedorenko et al., 2000)–is far from well understood.

With every sample we collect, there is the hope that it could lead us towards an answer to one of these questions. But as we sit on the outcrop and look at the rocks and talk about what they might mean, it often seems like we are generating more questions than we could possibly answer. Sometimes the most pressing question we are trying to answer is simple: what the hell is this rock?

Some days we hike a few miles and come across superb, surprising, super exciting outcrop. Like the thirty meters of tuff we found in a cliff just upriver from Kayak. This tuff (in a totally unexpected place, though Ben’s advisor, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, had a hunch there might be something cool in those cliffs) had huge clasts, up to half a meter across, that had been thrown into the air and then incorporated into the tuff by the power of the eruption. And to cap it all off, many of these clasts were coal, an intriguing potential source for volatiles.

Other days (like, for example, today) we hike up a series of ever higher peaks, clambering up precarious slopes of talus and battling through mosquitoey swamps, only to reach some of the most god-awful outcrop you could ever imagine. But if you’d like to try imagining it, think of little tiny bits of rock buried in piles of dirt. Even those little tiny bits of rock, however, could still yield crucial information about the eruption.

That’s the thing–that’s why the past month has been so exciting (aside from rafting down rapids and stuff like that). The questions themselves are just cool, exciting questions. And you can’t help looking at every single rock you see out here–every single junky piece of float and every single layer of tuff–you can’t help looking at them and thinking to yourself: Well, maybe that rock could help us find some of the answers. So we label it and add it to our (ahem) slightly large pile of samples. And then we sit around the campfire and try to plot and plan exactly how we are going to get all our rocks home past Russian customs.

Home Sweet Maymecha (July 21)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 21, 2009 by siberia2009
Guarding the gear from the helicopter swash

Guarding the gear from the helicopter swash

A giant helicopter whisked us away yesterday from the shore of the Kotuy river just outside of Kayak and carried us to the Maymecha river. Seth summarized the ride as “bananas.” After landing on a broad gravel bar an hour or so later, we unloaded our mountain of gear right next to the helicopter. To keep the gear from blowing away as the helicopter took off, we laid on top the immense pile. The feeling and sight of a huge machine hovering not feet above your head, pinning you down with the force of its engines, was quite something. The rotor had six blades at least.

The helicopter left us in easily the most breathtaking place we have been so far. The Maymecha river is totally wild… Forests, meadows, mountains, clear water, small rapids, fish galore.  Ben, while taking his evening swim, saw a taimen (a type of fish here) of considerable size swimming through the shallow water. He blurted out a litany of profanity and waved his arms wildly. Although not visually confirmed by Seth, the ferocity of the arm-waving and severity of the cussing suggested a fish of no less than 5 feet in length.

We are not just here to eat caribou and take helicopter rides–so now a bit of geology. Broadly speaking, Seth’s main interest out here is in dating many stratigraphic levels in the Siberian Traps section to define both the tempo of the eruption and when it started. Ben is interested in quantifying the volatiles released from the Traps during various stages of the eruption. One way to do this is with melt inclusions–tiny droplets of liquid magma trapped and frozen inside a crystal as it forms. When present in a magma, volatile gases such as fluorine, chlorine, and sulfur typically degas during the course of an eruption. But they can be preserved inside melt inclusions, so that more than 250 million years after the eruption occurred we might be able to peek at the gases injected into the atmosphere by the Siberian Traps.  With this information we hope to assess the environmental impact of such an enormous volcanic event.

We are here in the Maymecha to sample a section of rocks that only crop out in this area. The Pravoboyarsky suite, which is composed of several hundred meters of tuff, forms the base of the Maymecha section. This unit is easily eroded and therefore very difficult to find in outcrop–but finding it is half the fun! We are also hoping to track down several other promising units of rock. Over the next 10 days we will raft down the river, working our way up the section from older rock to younger rock. Our trip will end at the mouth of the Delkan river, where some of the youngest rocks in the entire Traps section are exposed.

While we were typing the previous paragraph, Roma came sauntering up dragging a 15-pound taimen. It looks like we will be having a second dinner tonight. Fresh, pan-fried fish. This place is FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!


We have no internet here, obviously. These posts are made with the help of a computer, a satellite phone, and Lindy Elkins-Tanton. So while we miss all of you, we have no good way of letting you know. But you can let us know how much you miss us! In case you missed the instructions, you can send a message for free to our satellite phones by going to (we think that’s the website, but we’re still not sure, so you may have to google it) and typing a message to:

8816 3164 1157 (Seth) or
8816 3154 7593 (Ben)

But remember, we can’t reply to these messages, only read them. Quick response to a few texts we have received:
How much does the antelope cost?
Shame on you Rosario.
Target bluebird has been eliminated.

Caribou Supper (July 19 2009)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 19, 2009 by siberia2009
Seth, Irina, and Ben

Seth, Irina, and Ben

We had not planned on posting until after our arrival at the Maymecha section, but we just couldn’t sit on this one.

Irina, the owner of our hotel in Kayak, does not speak any English. She used signs, boisterous noises and her booming laugh to let us know that she had a surprise for us after field work today (us being Ben, Seth, and Anya–we have been working on a different section from the others).

She ushered us into a room furnished with five rickety chairs and a giant hibiscus plant, which bloomed this morning, and a table with two liters of beer and a bowl covered in tin foil. We sat down, a little scared of what might be under the tin foil. But then she unveiled her masterpiece: tender pan-fried chunks of caribou garnished with onions and with a side of 2001-dated cocktail sauce. We worked hard today–we found an amazing 30 meter section of tuff, with giant clasts of coal!–and we were starving. It is difficult to convey how good that caribou tasted. And the beer was ice cold. Irina looked on like a delighted grandmother. Even after we had each eaten what seemed like an entire caribou leg, she kept smiling and nodding and encouraging us to take more. “Miesa! (Meat!) Kuzno! (Tasty!)”  Just like a grandmother–except instead of feeding us cookies and milk she was filling us up with cold beer and caribou.

During our feast we joked about the Russian words we were unsucessfully trying to repeat and used Anya as a translator to let our hostess know how much we loved the food. When the beer was gone and we could not stomach another chunk, Irina and Anya sat and chatted in Russian for a few minutes while we nursed our full bellies. As they talked the tone gradually became more subdued. After Irina had left we asked Anya what they were talking about.  She told us that Irina had been describing the slow decline of Kayak. The population has dropped from 111 to 80 in the last year. The coal mine, which is this small town’s only reason for existence and only industry, willl be closing for good this winter. There are plans for a new mine a few kilometers away but Irina, who moved from Ukraine 33 years ago, is skeptical that any new mine will materialize. In the interim, the entire town is surviving on government subsidies and the liquidation of mine assets.

We were shocked. Everyone we’d met in Kayak was so friendly and welcoming–from the owner of the lumber mill, who called off his dogs and let us snoop around his property, to the mildly inebriated duo who temporarily abducted us in their speedboat yesterday. Irina’s hotel has had only a handful of guests in the past year. So it humbled us to to see how delighted she was to share her amazing caribou and her “Big Size” Baltica 7’s.