Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Axel Heiberg ,
arctic as arctic can be, plus fossil trees from the Eocene

Axel Heiberg Island is an island in the region of Nunavut, in Canada's High Arctic. Located in the Arctic Ocean, just aside the huge Ellesmere Island, it is a large island with an area over 43 000 km2.

Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46 ′ W
Uninhabitated -  Only in summer, a small crew works at McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS)

Ridged cliffs are a common landscape in the island

Axel Heiberg Island was discovered in 1900 by Otto Sverdrup during his Norwegian Polar Expedition of 1898-1902. Peary and Cook were also brief visitors to the island.

An ice cap covers the central area of the island, feeding several glaciers and lakes

Polar desert” is the term that best describes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg.

A barren land that hardly supports life, but surprisingly is home to muskox herds, caribou, arctic foxes, hares and wolves, ermine and owls, as well as a spectacular flora.

 Arctic wolf.

Ermine jumping.

Flowers abound in early July, when masses of purple saxifrage make the tundra appear red, then later in the month yellow mountain avens, arctic fireweed and impressive arctic poppy which, despite of its considerable size, blossoms even in the strongest of winds.

Purple saxifrage.

Mountain avens.

Arctic fireweed.

Firewood nearby the Crusoe glacier.

Poppies around Crusoe glacier.

Phantom Lake and its surroundings is one of the most striking landscape features of central Axel Heiberg.
With a surface are of approximately 6 km2, it is dammed by Thompson Glacier.

Astro Lake and the Thompson glacier - one of the best studied glaciers on earth.

Crusoe glacier, from the tongue upwards to the accumulation area.

Midnight view of White Glacier.

But Axel Heiberg is best known among scientists for two geologic features:
- the Lost Hammer spring and
- the Mummified forest.

The unusual fossil forests date from the Eocene period:

Metasequoia occidentalis mummified.

'About 55 million years ago, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island was a wetland forest. Temperatures hovered around the 18-degree Celsius mark, not the -10 degrees of today. Silt-rich flood waters preserved the flora - palm trees, dawn redwoods, bald cypress and cycads - perfectly.'

The trees reached up to 35 metres in height; some may have grown for 500 to 1000 years. Instead of turning into petrified "stone" fossils, they were ultimately mummified by the cold, dry Arctic climate, and only recently exposed by erosion.

Lost Hammer Spring
(79° 07' N, 90° 21' W)

The Lost Hammer Spring, located in the central west region of the island, is the coldest (it gets down to -50º C, easy) and saltiest of all springs on earth described to date, and is characterized by perennial discharges at subzero temperatures, hypersalinity, rich in sulfates - similar to possible springs on planet Mars !

While Axel Heiberg is already inhospitable enough, the Lost Hammer spring is even more so !

MARS on earth

Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46′ W

In 1959, scientists from McGill University installed a small base in central Axel Heiberg Island - the McGill Arctic Research Station, MARS.

It consists of a small research hut, a kitchen and 2 temporary structures that can comfortably accommodate 8-12 persons. The station was busiest during the early 1960s, during which a population of 20 was present.

The station is now only used during the summer months, when the sun shines almost continuously and there is enough power, which is supplied by solar panels.

MARS is situated on the west coast of Axel Heiberg Island, just 8 km from the ocean. Although its surroundings are typical High Arctic polar desert, this local is dominated by the presence of the fjord's glacier.

The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure.

Even a small emergence library has its place in the hut interior.

MARS provides access to glacier, ice cap, and polar desert environments. The surroundings are mountainous and glaciated. Research activities include glaciology, climate change, permafrost hydrology, geology, microbiology.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Simmer dim, the non-quite darkness of the arctic summer nights

Stricktly speaking, the Sun only remains above the horizon in summer nights north of the Arctic Circle (66º N), for some weeks, until the Pole - for some months.

Nordkapp, Norway, 71º N - the most visited.

But sun-enlightened nights can be enjoyed since about 60º N latitude for a short period - the well-known Simmer Dim, visible in the Orkney, Shetland and Faröe islands, or anywhere by that latitude.

Fishing through the dimmed night, Orkney islands, 59º N.

In June, for example, the sun is above the horizon for over 18 hours, rising at 4 a.m. But it is still twilight for much of the night, as the sun only dips just below the horizon.
This period of not-quite darkness is known as the ‘simmer dim’, and some can't get asleep.

Dimmed twilight in the Shetlands by the end of June- a large festival usually takes place to celebrate those sleepless nights.

Kulusuk, Greeland, 65º N.

Deep night, Jan Mayen, 71º N.

Ny Ålesund, Svalbard islands, 79º N.

Lofoten, Norway, 67-68º N.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, one of the most appreciated by cruise ship travellers, 78ºN.

And to help through the night...

They say it has the exact colour of the summer twilight.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle -
an historic town in northern Siberia by 66º N

Salekhard is a Russian town located on the right bank of the Ob river, in the Yamal Peninsula, and right on the Polar circle, the 66th parallel.

Salekhard is also close to the northern Russian border between Europe and Asia, on the Asian side, on the east-southern foothills of the Ural Mountains.

Asia / Europe signpost.

It's probably the most interesting Arctic town in Russia, though its History has seen dark years of human misery during soviet times.

The main spots: 1- main square; 2- Church of St. Peter and St. Paul; 3 - old town (Obdorsk)

The new city centre.

Population: ~ 45 000
Coordinates: 66° 32′ N, 66° 36′ E

Does it look like 66º N

Either new, or newly painted.

New pedestrian promenade.

Recently enriched by natural gas sources, the city has been living a boom both in population growth and modern building, as also in public services.

The "Polaris" centre - 3D cinema and shops, in arctic Siberia !

But in contrast with some dreadful gulag towns like the nearby Vorkuta and NorilskSalekhard keeps an historic heritage among the quirky colourful new buildings, and provides a rising quality of life.

A previous local administration building - now marriages usually take place here, sometimes in great splendour.

One of the few wooden houses in the centre.

Window decorated with the city's iconic reindeer theme.

Salekhard was founded in 1595; it was then a Cossack fortress named Obdorsk, the first Russian settlements founded on the territory of Siberia.

Obdorsk (= door to the Ob river) controlled most of the Russian arctic trade until the 18th century, and the local market was the largest in Western Siberia.

By the end of that century, Obdorsk had lost its importance and was partially demolished.

The fortress of Obdorsk, on a promontory over the river.

In the 19th century, Obdorsk became a trade settlement for furs of sable, polar fox, fox, ermine, squirrel and muskrat. Fishery has also been well developed in thanks to richness of fish species in the Ob river - it still is the second strongest income source in the city.

Salekhard acquired its name only in 1933; the word derives from “Sale-Khard”, in Nenets language, meaning “settlement on a promontory".

Nenets meeting in traditional clothes.

The Nenets are the native people of the Yamal /Nenets region, and one of the largest native communities in Russia, also called 'Samoyeds' - a nomadic people who used to live by herding reindeer and are close to the Scandinavia's Sami (or 'Lapps').

Church of St Peter and St Paul.

Designed by German architect Gottlieb Zinke, it was completed in 1894 and was then the only stone (brick) building in town.

Built on permafrost, the foundations and the thermal insulation were difficult to deal with at the time. The polar temple's golden dome is visible from far in the taïga.

Pouring warm light in the frosty polar night.

Obdorsk Ostrog 

Obdorsk Ostrog

Obdorsk Fortress is the remains of the first Russian settlement in Siberia. The fortress was a small quadrangle, with two observation towers.

Inside, the Vasilyevskaya church, made of wood, from 1602.

Somehow, this is the 'Salekhard Kremlin'.

Obdorskij Ostrog was under restoration, and opened in September 2006 in its historic location.

The Theater 501

From the 20th century, under soviet regime, this unusual wooden building is one of the city's historic houses; it was meant to cheer up the troops and the railway workers, mainly with popular comedy. It is situated at Ul. Respubliki, the main street.

The name '501' derives from Gulag 501, the camp where the prisoners who built the railroad lived.

The Salekhard-Igarka Railway

In the early 1950s, Salekhard was one of the main base stations for the construction of the infamous Salekhard–Igarka Railway, to complete the connection of Murmansk and Arckangelsk to Chukotka in the far-east.

Essentially, this was a make-work project for approximately 60 -120 000 labourers (mostly political prisoners).

The planned 1 297 km railway was to be part of a transcontinental rail link across northern Siberia to transform the region.

One gulag camp would build eastward from Salekhard (gulag 501) ; another (gulag 502) would move westward from Igarka. A permanent rail line so far north makes no sense, as new tracks became embedded in permafrost or damaged by frost heaving.

The conditions for the labourers were almost beyond comprehension: everything was built by hand with very little and basic equipment. The rail lines themselves were not reinforced to deal with the permafrost in any way.

In summer, the marshes and swamps prevalent in the area gave rise to millions of mosquitoes, gnats, and parasites. Come winter, temperatures often plummeted to -60°C, and blizzards struck down many of the workers.

This allowed nature to destroy and reclaim much of what had been constructed in the tundra rather easily. Today, the remains of the railway are slowly fading back into the taiga; bridges, camps and empty villages have fallen into decay.


And Salekhard finally has a rail connection to the main network. In a civilized and clever manner.

Russian train passing the Euope-Asia border.

Crossing the wide Ob's estuary, usually frozen in winter, is now also possible by hovercraft (ACV). It's the only way to reach the railway station at Labytnangi, on the opposite bank. With the Ob free of ice, the crossing is easier, by ferry.

The new railway station Labytinangi-Salekhard. If it's not huge, it's not Russian.

Monument to Parallel 66, the arctic circle.

The Fakel ('Torch') bridge, symbol of the Gas industry wealth, has a panoramic restaurant on the top.