SDSU College of Sciences
Scientists are braving Arctic winters to study carbon frozen in soil. They keep finding surprises — all of them bad.
(Inside Science) — It was dusk when Nikita Zimov limped to the icy riverbank and its lifesaving supply of driftwood. He had pushed himself hard the last few exhausting miles, knowing that he would freeze to death if he didn’t find firewood before dark. He built a fire and huddled by the flames, trying to dry his sodden clothes as snow continued to fall. He peeled off one boot to expose his throbbing toe, and saw that the nail was bruised and broken from a day spent struggling across the tundra.
If it were summer, he’d have taken a boat upriver to his destination — a patch of Siberian tundra where instruments monitored the flow of greenhouse gases between air and soil. In winter, he’d have taken a snowmobile over the ice. But in mid-October of 2014, the river was half-frozen. To maintain his instruments, he had to hike in from another direction.
The field site was on the outskirts of a swath of tundra known as the Pleistocene Park, which spans more than 50 square miles of mostly unfenced wilderness. As director of the park, Zimov was intimately familiar with the landscape and its dangers. Nevertheless, he had gotten turned around, and now was even farther from his goal than he had been when he started.
His swollen toe would not fit back in his hiking boot. If he couldn’t hike on that foot the next day, he could still die before reaching his field site. But he had a spare pair of rubber boots in his backpack, so he figured he would manage. He emptied the backpack and lay on top of it, setting his spare boots by the fire.
When dawn came, it revealed a terrible sight.