Archive for July, 2009

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.

Sushi! (July 17, 2009)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 by siberia2009
The town of Kayak, arctic Siberia.

The town of Kayak, arctic Siberia.

Seth Burgess (left) and Ben Black (right) having lunch on an outcrop by the Kutoy River.

Seth Burgess (left) and Ben Black (right) having lunch on an outcrop by the Kutoy River.

The last couple of days have seen us finishing our geology in the upriver sections and traveling on the Siberian Sloops many hours downriver to the village of Kayak. The journey to our temporary home, where the helicopter will come to take us to the Maymecha river, was mighty long. The majority of the day we paddled, making little progress with the weak current.  By the end of the day even this was difficult for us and Roma and Anya mercifully towed us the last couple of hours into Kayak on their Tohatsu-powered catamaran. Once on the beach, we loaded our considerable baggage onto what Seth excitedly deemed the “Siberian monstertruck” and were checked into our luxury accomodations. Really. Our home for the next four days has comfy beds, a kitchen, and toilets that flush with the simple pull of a chain. Also in this fantastic little town are showers and laundry, and a couple stores. Although not as numerous as those in Khatanga, the stores in Kayak have a claim to fame–cash registers that make use of an abacus. We paid for our groceries this morning by trying to guess how much money was represented by the lines of black and tan beads on (as Volodia put it) the shopkeeper’s “Russian calculator.”

Ben locked the door to our room last night to deter any and all of the wandering Kayak drunkards–of which we had already met a few. In the morning we discovered the malfunctioning lock actually locked us inside our room. We were forced to hail the proprietor of the hotel out our window (which has now fallen off its hinges) to let us out. She is an adorable woman that yells every answer to every one of our statements in the most gregarious, grandmotherly, laughing, smiling way and tickles Ben and tells him he needs to cut his hair. We gave her a letter written by Lindy and she exploded with excitement more than sufficient to fill the small hallway we were standing in. Then, in gratitude, she presented us with a bouquet of salted fish. The Russians got a good laugh at all of this.

Ben joked on the river yesterday that there was a nice sushi restaurant in Kayak and kept expressing his love and adoration for the “great sushi bar they just opened in Kayak.” An attempt to make a joke about the obvious lack of such a thing. Our Russian counterparts did not fully understand the joke, so when we awoke, and were finally liberated from our room, there was a bowl filled with cold, raw fish and sliced onions waiting for us in the kitchen room. Sushi! We ate. Also on the odd-edibles front, we consumed a can of pineapple rounds that was marked as expiring in 2001, the year Ben graduated from high school. Updates on our post-pineapple condition will no doubt follow in the coming days. In semi-related news, Seth broke another toilet.

We will spend the remainder of our time in Kayak sampling tuffs and lavas from the Kogotokskaya Suite (several hundred meters of rock in the middle of the Traps section) and exploring a few large dikes a short distance upriver. Kayak is a coal-mining town (we took our showers in the miners’ shower hall), and so there should be some good opportunities to sample coal-magma contacts. This whole time, we have been trying to keep our sample weight down, because there is a limit on how much Russian customs will allow us to take out. With so many good rocks, this has not been easy. We have also started to look over our maps of the Maymecha area in preparation for our next two weeks in the field.

Welcome to Kayak… Vodka?

Posted in Uncategorized on July 17, 2009 by siberia2009

It is dangerous to walk into the hallway outside our room in Kayak. This is where the residents of the town loiter, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Americans. “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” they cry. Then they grab us by the arm and start talking to us rapidly in booming Russian. The subject is usually unclear. They could be telling us about the weather, or they could be telling us about their childhood memories–about the hopes and dreams they had as children growing up in this tiny town crouching on a bed of coal. We do not know. “Ne pa knee maiyo,” we say. We do not understand. (We also do not know how to spell “Ne pa knee maiyo.”) We do not understand, but almost always there is one question that emerges from the chaotic jumble of Russian consonants: “Amerikanski! [Russian] [another Russian word] [more Russian]… Vodka?” Virtually every conversation concludes with an offer to share a few shots of vodka with us. Let us tell you, it is a difficult offer to refuse. Not because we want to drink vodka shots at four in the afternoon, but because the Kayakers show no inclination to let go of our arms unless we say yes.

Ben ventured out of the room tonight hoping to sneak towards the bathroom, but two hulking miners were lying in wait near the shoe rack. “Strasvoutsye! Strasvoutsye! Amerikanski!” they grabbed his arm, one on each side. Their necks were the size of the inner tubes on our rafts. Their hands on his upper arms were like two bear traps snapping closed.

“Ya ne pa knee maiyo…”

Roma came out to help Ben free himself, but instead one of the miners detached and grabbed Roma by the arm. Then he enveloped Roma in a giant hug, shouting in Russian.

“He says I am his friend,” Roma translated. The miner nodded vigorously, smiling, and then playfully wrapped his meaty hands around Roma’s neck and pretended to strangle him. “He says I am his very big friend,” Roma said, looking slightly careworn.

The other miner, meanwhile, had started shaking Ben’s hand up and down. He said something several times in Russian. Finally Ben caught one word: “Stat?” his miner was asking.

“Oh! California.”

“California!” The miner got excited. “Arnold Schwarzenegger! Terminator! Karushuo!”

“Da, Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Ben agreed.

Roma’s miner had briefly relented in his hugging in order to ask Roma Ben’s name.

“Ben! Ben! [A long Russian speech.]”

“He wants to tell you I am his very big friend,” Roma said at the end.

The miner enveloped Roma in another tremendous hug. Then he started sawing his finger back and forth across his throat, gleefully, in a kind of slashing motion.

“Beach Boys?” the other miner asked Ben. “Hang Loose? Bruce Lee?”

“Da,” Ben said. “Bruce Lee.”

“Vodka?” the miner suggested hopefully.

“Um, nyet.”


“He says we are best friends,” Roma said, emerging from another hug.

During this entire conversation, Seth hid behind the door of the room, trying not to laugh and attract attention to himself.

Volodia arrived just in time to rescue Ben and Roma. He shooed the miners off with a fatherly hand on each shoulder, and they went, smiling back and reaching out for one last handshake with Ben.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Ben said, and the miner replied “Da! Da! Arnold Schwarzenegger!” A single moment of total understanding, and then the miner was gone out the door.

At dinner tonight, Volodia told us that the Kayakers will be having their version of a barbeque tomorrow night, and that we had all been (quite insistently) invited. Ben asked if there would be hamburgers. “No,” Volodia said. “But there will be vodka. And maybe they will fry some caribou meat.” Uh oh. Once we get back from the field tomorrow, we are planning not to leave the safety of our room. If we have to go to the bathroom, we’ll hold it. We’ll see how that goes.