Road Trip: 1. The Southern Basin

The “Road Trip”component of the August expedition set off from Irkutsk, following the edge of the lake in an anti-clockwise direction. The Road Trip had several aims. The principal aim was to sample major streams and tributaries for stable isotope, pigment and chemical analyses.

Solzan River

Solzan River

Khara-Murin River

Khara-Murin River

Sampling equipment

Sampling equipment

Sampling strategies at each site included collecting up to 1L of river water, from as close to the central flow as possible, using a self-modified water sampler (with weight and float). This was to measure DOC, nutrients, TP, silicon concentrations (DSi) and its isotopic composition (δ30SiDSi). At each site we also collected a GPS location, measured pH, temperature and conductivity (in situ).

At certain base camps, large volumes of water were also filtered in order to obtain river diatoms, with the hope to be able to analyse their isotopic composition and compare this with the signature of diatoms from Lake Baikal itself.

Sampling the shore of Lake Baikal, Baikalsk

Sampling the shore of Lake Baikal, Baikalsk

As well as sampling the rivers, we also sampled a few locations in Lake Baikal itself, especially where rivers entered the lake, and close to pollution hotspots such as the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill.

Camp along the Snezhnaya River, close to Vydrino

Camp along the Snezhnaya River, close to Vydrino

We were not always lucky with the weather, unfortunately. Which slowed us down when it came to all our filtering and analyses. But given the time constraints that we had, we had to plough on…to the next site and camp!

Fixing the generator

Fixing the generator

So on we went, despite obstacles thrown in our way. Including breaking down on our way to the Selenga Delta. Luckily our Russian colleagues were a dab hand at mechanics and were able to temporarily fix the Tabletka until reaching the town Babushkin where Sasha and Pasha (despite it being a public holiday) were able to sweet talk some local engineers to manufacture a new part for the engine. Phew…on we went!

As we approached the Selenga Delta, the weather cleared giving us a great view of the vast landscape. We were able to check out a few satellite lakes as we went, to see their suitability for Renberg coring, which will allow us to place recent pollution impacts of the region into a longer-term perspective.

Finally arriving at our Selenga Delta Base Camp, we could admire the fantastic sunset and prepare plans for the next day…

Pasha carrying wood, at the Selenga Delta Base Camp

Pasha carrying wood, at the Selenga Delta Base Camp

To find out more about our Selenga Delta adventures, stay tuned!

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Back in Irkutsk

So we have safely arrived in Irkutsk. To a wonderful reception of very warm weather. We met two of our new colleagues, Sasha and Paval, who will be joining Anson and Ginnie on their round trip along the main tributaries of Lake Baikal, sampling. They took us on a lovely walk around the town, stopping to cool off along the River Angara. 

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After a good night’s rest, we are up and raring to go. We have lots of meetings today, finalising the plans for both parts of the expedition as well as re-packing our equipment for both legs and getting any final things that we need. So, more later!

9th Baikal Ice Marathon, 2013.

Fancy running across the oldest, deepest and most awesome lake in the world that holds over 20% of global surface freshwaters? Check. Fancy running across a World Heritage Site? Check. Fancy running across a terrain that switches between slippery ice and deep snow, whilst looking out for huge cracks in the ice along the route? Check. Fancy running in one of the most remote regions of the planet, far from any coastline, which has over 2000 earthquake tremors every year? Check. Fancy running 42 km in temperatures so cold that your sweat and mucous in your nose freezes? Check. If all these appeal to you, and want an adventure of a lifetime, then you should consider running the Baikal Ice Marathon (BIM).

BIM started 9 years ago and is one of the world’s most challenging races. As readers of this blog will know, Lake Baikal is a unique freshwater ecosystem, and this race was first organized back in 2004 to highlight the natural beauty of the lake and to promote preservation of its pure water.

BIM is never advertised and numbers of participants are relatively small; on 3rd March 2013 141 runners from 18 countries participated. It has been one of my greatest privileges therefore to have run the race this year, just one day before the start of our research project investigating human and climatic impacts on the lake.

On Saturday 2nd March competitors arrived at the tiny fishing village of Listvyanka on the northern shore of Baikal. We were put up in various hotels and hostels, each providing huge pasta meals for us maximise our carbohydrate reserves.

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15 people stayed my hotel from Spain, China, Japan, Russia, Czech Republic, the USA and the UK, and it was really interesting hearing about how everyone else heard about BIM and their excitment about doing the race. Sunday was an early start. I was up 4 hours before the race was due to start, part nerves, but also I was keen to get outside to try my super spiked iceBugs, especially made for running on ice.

Later In the morning we were bussed down to the edge of frozen Baikal to the start line. Anxiety was running quite high by this time. The course director, Alexei Nikiforov, told us that running conditions were actually quite treacherous [video]. Unusually, the first 12 km or so was dominated by clear, glassy ice, which without spikes, would make running very difficult indeed. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the bitingly cold temperatures of -20 °C.

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At the start of the race everyone has to give a salutation to the Baikal god Burkhan. In previous years this was done with a shot of vodka; for good or for bad this year we were given milk, which in retrospect was probably a good thing!

Now, I’m not a terribly fast runner, and I was unsure about how to run in spikes on glass ice, so I kept to the back of the field and found my own pace. Also, I had torn a calf muscle earlier in January, so training had been minimal, and I decided to make have several sequential goals. The first was just to participate in the race, and I have George Swann to thank for reinforcing that participating was a good idea. Second, I wanted to get to the half-way stage, where I knew several runners had only to complete the half-marathon. Third, if I did decide to carry on running, I would need to do so in under 6 hours – after that time runners are unceremoniously picked up along the way as the race officially closes.

At the start of the race you could see the Khamer Daban mountain range on the opposite shore of the lake. And this didn’t change for the full 42km. I was told that this one view throughout would make this race psychologically very difficult. We were also told that the cold would catch in our lungs, the sweat would freeze on our hair, and that running on snow and ice would be extremely difficult. Apart from the sweat freezing, which was true, I loved the view in front of me, I loved running in the cold, and running on the ice meant that I had to concentrate throughout.  All these made this marathon one of the best experiences I have ever had.

I had planned on live tweeting the race, but as soon as I got a 3G signal I was charged £20! Instead I made some videos of some of the more unusual observations. For example, not everywhere was the ice glass-black. In some regions it formed pancake ice  [video].

Perhaps the biggest shock came at about mile 20, when a loud, deep, booming sound resonated throughout the lake [video], and I’m sure I felt the ice shake beneath my feet. I captured my astonishment just after this happened, and put it down to a new ice crack opening up near by (video). This was enough to make me slightly concerned for my safety. However, I was to learn at the end of the race that this was in fact an earthquake that shook the Rift Valley, and opened up one of the large cracks in the ice, causing large amounts of water to gush up onto the surface. As well as being quite exhilarating, it meant that a new crossing route had to be found for many of the competitors returning from the finish line, which delayed their journey by over 3 hours.

At the half way sections of the race, those running the half-marathon came to their destination, with a welcome of hot sweet teas, food snacks, and the only loo on the course! This point actually marked a change in the condition of the course, which now had a snow covered surface [video].

So like the hare and tortoise, my slow steady pace paid off. I finished the course in 4h 31mins, way beyond my expectations, and to be honest I wasn’t pushing myself that much, deciding to enjoy the experience, take videos etc! I also ended up being the fastest Brit (out of 21), which was rather surprising to say the least.

Finally, would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I encourage anyone else to do it? Definitely. Maybe one or two of the Nottingham team can be persuaded for next year.

Our first pigment analyses

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After all the long days of filtering water samples in our lab kunk back in March, the samples have been stored within a freezer ready for pigment analyses to begin. Filtration was carried out on the collected lake-water samples, to concentrate phytoplankton cells on a Whatman GF/F filter. All these samples have been run through the pigment analyser (High-Performance-Liquid-Chromatography system), to provide us with data on the algal community composition. This analysis can be performed as all phytoplankton groups produce pigments (chlorophylls and carotenoids) to enable cell photosynthesis, and some of these pigments can be used as important biomarkers for algal species presence and absence. The detection of these pigments provides information on the entire species assemblage within the samples, and not just a single group. This is an important aspect of the research, as phytoplankton respond very quickly to any changes within their environment, and provide excellent indicators of nutrient enrichment and climate change through species assemblage changes. Pigment records from across Lake Baikal, extending over natural timescales, will then enable the impact of recent nutrient loading on the ecosystem to be assessed.

To find out more about the application of algal biomarkers within this research, click HERE.

HPLC system: Agilent 1200 series

HPLC system: Agilent 1200 series

Before the samples are analysed on this HPLC system, sample preparation is carried out under special conditions, to enable the separation and detection of individual pigments. A mixture of organic solvents is used to extract the pigments from the cells, consisting of acetone, methanol and water. This sample preparation has to be carried out under dim light conditions, to avoid unnecessary photochemical degradation of pigments, which reduces their chemical stability. They are then stored for at least 12 hours within a freezer in the dark, to ensure pigment extraction from all the algal groups. This is important as algal species have different cell walls, and species with heavily silicified walls (such as large diatoms) require more time to fully extract their pigment composition. These samples are further filtered and HPLC-grade acetone is added as part of the final extraction step. Samples are then dried within the glass vials under nitrogen gas before analysis on the HPLC Agilent 1200 series.

Samples are placed in the autosampler within HPLC

Samples are placed in the auto-sampler tray within HPLC

Once dried, injection solvent is added and the glass vials are placed within the auto-sampler tray before being injected into the HPLC. As each sample is injected into the system, a diode-array detector then analyses the pigments. This produces a pigment chromatogram, which displays the pigment composition within the samples and individual pigments can be identified from their peak retention times and spectra.

Interpretation of these pigment chromatograms is now underway, and fortunately all the manual filtering of litres and litres of water paid off…as well as provoking some arm wrestling from all the bicep exercising…

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…Shortly our first pigment analyses on the sediment cores collected from the March 2013 field trip will be carried out, so more on this to follow soon…

Ice Skating on Lake Baikal

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Walking the 1 km home over the ice, after dinner, to our kunks we bumped into Rashid. He was just loading his ice skates into the back of one of the vans and wanted to know if anyone wanted to join him for a sunset ice skate on the lake. This was naturally a tough call to make as we had at least another 10 L of lake water back in the lab kunk that needed filtering that night.

DSC02781However, when he mentioned it would only be for 30 minutes or so, until the sun had set, we could not refuse! In we jumped and drove up the coastline for 10 minutes until we reached a patch of ice where the wind had blown away all of the snow. Clear ice was all that could be seen. We parked up, argued over the pair of ice skates that would fit our feet best and hit the ice. It was breathtaking! It was fascinating to see all of the ice fractures under our feet in the sunset and feel the undulations of it as we glided over. Even the ice cracking sounds, that we are now quite accustomed to, did not impede our enjoyment.

Thanks Rashid. An amazing 30 minutes, never to be forgotten.

Experiment – Day 7

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The time has come to collect our mesocoms which have been left suspended under the ice, in a water depth of 3 m in Lake Baikal. After a bout of continuous heavy snowfall on Saturday we decided to make our way to Neutrino to clear some of the snow cover, and ensure the diatoms would have enough light inorder to make the experiment a success. This turned out to be fortuitous as the snow cover was very deep, and therefore took us some time to clear the area.

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Our Russian colleagues even suggested that we break up the ice as this would make it easier in 3 days time to collect the bags again. After an hour of hard work, we had a clear ice hole to check that all our bags were still suspended from the ice and with a few tweaks (hanging the rope over a wooden frame) we were all set to leave them again, knowing that we would (hopefully) have an easier job to remove them on Wednesday.

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Wednesday soon came around. Luckily the weather today was much warmer than the day before, which had reached c. -30oC overnight. This was good news as we would be collecting the bags and we did not want them to freeze before we were able to transport them back to the lab kunk at Base Camp.

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After succesfully retrieving all 15 sample bags, we headed back to camp to begin our filtering procedures. This entailed a very long evening, operating the filtration units. Through our observations, the nutrient enriched mesocosm water samples took considerably longer to filter. This is as expected, and should imply the experiments have worked. We’ll know more once we start analysing our samples back in the UK. Anyway, back to filtering….