Oceans of Ancient Wood and Coming Full Circle

We have just made it back to Ulaanbaatar after 11 days of in-country travel and field work. While being a bit field worn from working on a lava field for 6 days, we are simultaneously thrilled and in good spirits. It is a bit too early to say, but it seems that Summer 2012 in Mongolia was a success*. It certainly felt like a success to me on the day we came full circle from 2010.

Amy, John, and Sanaa were a day ahead of us and, with John being down with a case of Chinggis’ revenge, Amy and Sanaa spent a full day on the lava field revisiting and re-visioning how we would sample over the following week. The hopeful goal was to collect enough wood to push the chronology near 2000 years in length while having enough samples over the last 1000 years to be able to say something with statistical significance. Sanaa and Amy intensely studied where to find wood and what pieces might be from an earlier era. They accomplished this while collecting 24 cross-sections of deadwood. It was an impressive and hugely helpful first day.

It was necessary to study the characteristics of the deadwood and its geographic distribution across the lava field because, honestly, our first discovery is pretty much the definition of, “a blind hog will find an acorn every once in a while“. During Amy’s and Sanaa’s first day of discovery in 2012, Sanaa came up with the term ‘ocean’ for the large, open areas of lava that are virtually devoid of trees. Because the ocean as a whole can be considered a kind of desert, we found that term ‘ocean’ was correct: this part of the lava field truly resembled a desert. Thus, over the course of our fieldwork, the first verse and drifting characteristics of A Horse with No Name came to mind. The heat was hot. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. Oh yeah, there were a few rocks.

A 360 pan of a large ‘ocean’ of lava. Can you spot Amy and Kevin? Photo: N. Pederson

Together we learned that it was on the margins of these oceans that we could find what appeared to be ancient wood. It wasn’t until the penultimate day, however, that we had any sense of what we had accomplished.

Being 5 days in and having collected ~150 pieces of deadwood, we were all a bit burnt, literally and figuratively. Though we had sunscreen and hats, it wasn’t quite enough. We all looked a bit beety. We were also running on fumes. Constantly hiking on jumbled and sharp pieces of lava jars the body and mind. So, on Day 5 we set out for a low-pressure ‘cleanup’ of the lava field. Almost anything we collected that day would be bonus material.

We decided to head towards some of the sample locations from 2010 to see if we could find some of the oldest pieces. Many of the oldest pine cross-sections from 2010 were not GPS’ed due to time, energy, and the afterthought nature of that collection. So, on Day 5 in 2012 we wandering an area we mostly missed in 2012 while at the same time trying to recollect the hazy afternoon in 2010.

About 45 minutes to an hour in, we had our first success. We re-discovered ‘The Logo Tree’. While the day on the lava field in 2010 is still very hazy in my mind (due to my state of being in day 3 of undiagnosed and untreated tonsillitis), the sharpest memory of that day is The Logo Tree.

The Logo Tree, a dead and likely ancient Siberian pine. Photo: N. Pederson

In 2010 The Logo Tree symbolized the potential for this site. We had spotted some Siberian pine trees, a species I did not see during my first brief visit to this site in 1999 with Gordon Jacoby, Baatarbileg Nachin, and Oyunsanaa (Sanaa) Byambasuren. This tree, though dead, captures many of the characteristics of old trees (charismatic megaflora) while also having the weathered, ‘stressed’ form of trees living on the edge of survival. These trees are often the ones tree-ring scientists use to reconstruct past climate. The Logo Tree screamed, “I, and many other pines like me, are ancient. You might better pay attention. This area could be filled with xylemite.”

So, it was with great joy that on Day 5 of 2012 The Logo Tree was re-discovered. Many picture were taken. Champagne corks were unleashed (in the form of taking the top off our water bottles and taking a swig of water). It certainly lifted me to a higher energy state.

We then spent much of the next few hours scouting for more samples from 2010 and passing through what can be considered a pine graveyard, an area filled with much deadwood and ancient, stunted pine trees.

Three generations of trees in the ‘pine graveyard’: deadwood, ancient, but stunted living trees, and tall, spritely young trees. Photo: N. Pederson

A specific goal on Day 5 was to locate the oldest piece from 2010, a sample dating to the middle portion of the first millennium of the Common Era. Having not yet found it as the day was drawing to a close, we decided to narrowly focus on finding that piece. We wandered. We scratched our heads. We saw a horse with no name. And then…and then, we hit an area with signs of our past chainsaw work.

Could it be? Might that be The One?

Yes, it had to be. See, that sample, The Eldest of 2010, sits near my desk. It is within arm’s reach in case of impromptu lab tours. I know that sample. The Elder is a bit oval with a characteristic hole that makes it easier to carry or hold up with two fingers. This seemed to be it.

The joy and shock of this confirmation, of coming full circle, was that this log didn’t look as old or as weathered as many of the pieces we had collected over the prior 4.75 days. It didn’t look exceptional. It nearby cousin, cut 2/3rds of the up a dead stem, was equally unimpressive. Yet, The Elder’s cousin dates to the late-1200s.

Sanaa, Amy, and Neil with The Elder, Day 5, 2012. Photo: B. Nachin

This particular re-discovery floated us for the remainder of the day and trip back to Ulaanbaatar. We cannot yet say with any certainty, but it seems we really hit our research goal. In fact, we are now concerned that we might have some pieces so old that they will not date – they might actually predate any long chronology we might build from this site. But, if this is a problem, we wish this kind of problem to all of our colleagues.

Now, to some scenes from the field:

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go. Photo: N. Pederson

Neil and Amy, ocean walking. Photo: K. Anchukaitis

Amy sawing a piece of dead wood on the edge of a sea of lava. Photo: N. Pederson

Sample KHO415. Photo: K. Anchukaitis

John taking a plunge cut from a snag. In addition to taking samples from logs, we took some samples from standing dead trees. Photo: N. Pederson

Some snags took on a colorful beauty. Photo: N. Pederson

Some of the ancient-looking pines were quite short compared to their compatriots. For example, Amy is ~1.6 m tall. The 400? 500+? yr old pine to the left of Amy might be a little over twice her height. Photo: N. Pederson

Despite being low in productivity, the lava field holds much life. Can you spot the wolf scat? Photo: N. Pederson

Kevin says, “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.”** Photo: N. Pederson

*No living trees were harmed in the creation of this post

** respect

2 responses to “Oceans of Ancient Wood and Coming Full Circle

  1. I was so moved to know you guys are out there doing all this for trees and our planet… hope the tonsilllituuuus is all cleared up NOT fun!

  2. mongolianecologyculture

    Thanks Terry. Oh, we LOVE the trees. for some of us, they might have replaced dogs as our best friends.

    the tonsillitis was in 2010 and, while not fun, was cleared up in UB with some antibiotics. this year was illness free.

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