Taiga Sands

Taiga Sands
Noyabr'sk, Russia

Noyabr’sk, Russia

I wouldn’t have thought the Western Siberian taiga as it gradually emerged from the weakening hold of the taller beech and conifer forests of the south would all be sitting on huge white massive sands. The A horizon is very shallow of accumulated organic matter and where rail road disturbances reveal the profile there is some leaching of the brown humus down into the bleached white sands. I’ve been told by my new friend and guitar playing companion Peter that only a few metres down now the permafrost exists. These massive sands are the product of a retreating ice sheet that left a massive sea in its ‘wake’ covering this northern expanse of Siberia. This sea (or lake?) was around 30-40 metres deep and the fine glacial moraines and tills were reworked on the seabed into the massive sands we see underlying the Siberian taiga and tundra today.

Overnight while the sun barely set just before midnight (producing a beautiful long rich pastel red sunset) and rose fully a few hours later I could see the pines were now dominant and the birch was almost gone. But then something would change and the trees would grow in size over a localised patch. And birch would come into its own again. This was like a giant ecotone moving from the taiga to the tundra. With a few hundred kilometres to the Arctic Circle still the taiga holds on.

The whole landscape though was now different. No longer a dense forest with a thick cacophony of understory growth, the taiga now had a varying mosaic of colour and texture and substance. A mosaic of colours from the dark greens of the conifers to the dull pastel limes of the mossy carpet floors. A mosaic of textures from the rough-edged outlines of the conifers to the smooth curves of the lakes and the padded flats around them. And a mosaic of substance from the peaty bogs of the depressions to the bleached silicated sandy grit of the island rises.

From the confines of a long train now empty since the regional oil and gas service centre of Surgut late the night before (kind Valera and Vera alighted here with their six year old grandson) I admired the light brown orange of the flaky trunks of the pencil straight pines and the brilliant white trunks of the beeches with their horizontal scar-like black lines.

Lakes opened up and were surrounded by the lowest of ground hugging plants too small to be distinguished from the train window. The bright flashes of white in the landscape always turned out to be places where the soils had been exposed by vegetation removal. In some wooded groves the understory was dominated by low bushes and shrubs reminiscent of the understory of some Western Australian Eucalypt woodlands. But only the understory and only in form. Maybe these included the cranberries known to populate these parts.

The lakes and drainage lines showed evidence of accumulated organic silts and clays. Being situated on massive white sands this I suppose was what allowed the lakes to hold water – a bit like the ‘coffee rock’ sealing the fragile lakes on Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia.

The lakes continued to become more frequent and abundant. Occasional birch groves would appear. But I wondered if these were aided north by the rail road corridor effect? Fire too was evident. I’d heard about Siberian forest fires in recent years. And seeing the burnt patches, one of which we passed right beside the tracks having just been burnt, I wondered how fire resilient this taiga ecotone ecosystem was. I could however, see tremendous regrowth. And the understory of the taiga was full of pine seedlings vying for an edge amongst mosses, micro ferns, grasses and other as yet identified plants. But when razed to the ground I wondered how long the mosses and other moisture-sensitive ground covers would take to return.

I also wondered about the effects of uncontrolled vehicle traffic after I saw evidence of 4WD tracks having left large continuous depressions over the mossy ground.

In the flat sandy expanses there were marshes and on a small scale there existed a mosaic of micro-habitats: low mosses and sedges surrounding tiny micro-relief islands raised only inches above the surrounds and populated by just one or two dwarfed pines.

Surrounding the lakes and marshes and in low depressions I noticed the cotton bud heads of a plant I recognised as similar to the one I’d seen in East Greenland beside the Hurry Fjord at Constable Pynt. Their fluffy white heads having made the most of this brief summer already being as they were in full ‘fluff’ seeding mode.

All this summer growth by the annuals was in response to the long winters. And I tried to imagine the metres of snow and how long before it would melt away leaving a cold moist organic layer on which the mosses and other plants could switch back on and grow in the new found light.

But winter seemed miles away as the long days brought ambient temperatures up close to 30 degrees Celsius.

A road had been following the rail way for several hundred kilometres. Sometimes under construction it was variably on either side of the track and only the occasional car did I spy from the train’s window using it. Regularly in the distance I would see communication towers and large high voltage power lines would cross the railway line occasionally as well.

As we approached Корот&#10 95;аево, the last stop before Novy Urengoy I saw more fire scars alongside the rail corridor. And every so often we’d cross a small dark closely stream. Nothing as big as last night’s crossing of the massive Ob River with its two massive bridges.

The idea of trying to getting Yamburg the oil and gas field operation in the Ob Gulf coast to the north is enticing. Intelligence from Katya helping me research it via text back in Moscow tells me it might be off limits as a company town for employees only. I’ll see what I can do. She has offered further advice saying that I might take a marshrutka (small informal public bus) out there an then ask a local car to take me out to the Ob Beach (?). She says its about four hours drive by the road up there. She reports good weather ahead too for the zone. It’s a good feeling to have a trusted research support back at Moscow base!

After Корот&#10 95;аево the tundra took over. On the far horizons though to the east and west all I could see was the dwindling taiga.

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