Archive for June, 2009

Eating Well in Russian Geologist Style

June 7th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Like most American travelers, I worry most about foreign food and bathrooms.  The food, at least, turns out to be delightful.

One of our many dinners in the field house.

One of our many dinners in the field house; a Trinity Sunday cookie.

I try to drink just water and tea where possible, but I am occasionally encouraged to drink “kvas”, which is a non-alcoholic beverage made from dark bread and sugar.  It is referred to as the “Russian Coca-Cola”.  I use it as a substitute for the many vodka toasts during dinner.  (Translated for me, most of the toasts are on the order of, “Here’s to fish and oranges!”  I managed to get one in for D-Day on June 6th, combined with Pushkin’s Birthday.)

Our field day usually starts with food shopping.  We buy fresh and smoked fish from roadside vendors and other items from small stores in the local villages.  For some more elaborate dinners we take the ingredients with us in the car and at slow moments someone pulls out the pot and slices meats and vegetables!

Buying smoked fish on the way to the field on the left, and Andrei preparing for the night's dinner on the right.

Buying smoked fish on the way to the field on the left, and Andrei preparing for the night's dinner on the right.

Ordovician Hardgrounds

June 7th, 2009

SASS RIVER, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–The main geological attractions for me on this expedition are the abundant carbonate hardgrounds in the Lower and Middle Ordovician in this part of the world.  A carbonate hardground is a cemented seafloor.  What were soft sediments on the bottom were cemented with carbonate minerals (calcite in the Ordovician) so that they became a rocky surface several centimeters thick.  The sediment is usually carbonate mud and shells, so the result is essentially a limestone seafloor.  Many invertebrate animals colonize these hard surfaces by wither encrusting them or boring into them.  Those eocrinoids illustrated earlier, for example, often encrusted Early and Middle Ordovician hardgrounds.

Today at the Sass River Carbonate Mound locality (N60.02316°, E32.62471°) we saw numerous hardgrounds bored by a shallow variety of a trace fossil called Trypanites.

Borings in Ordovician hardground fragments.

Borings in Ordovician hardground fragments.

These are the most common borings in hardgrounds.  This particular type of Trypanites is remarkably shallow — often appearing as pits rather than the usual penetrating cylinder.  Another difference between these hardground fossil faunas and those I know best in North America and western Europe.

A Tunnel to a Frozen Past

June 6th, 2009

SASS RIVER, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–”Do you have a light? We are going into caves tomorrow.” I must admit to a bit of trepidation, hearing that question. I indeed have a small flashlight, but not one I’d like to have with me in a cave. Turns out the caves today were actually abandoned mine tunnels in a Cambrian quartzose sandstone on the right bank of the Sass River (N60.05429°, E32.59517°). The mines were designed to extract the quartz sand to make glass — some kind of Stalinist enterprise in the 1930s to turn the local peasants into proletarians. These mines were abandoned once the Germans invaded in 1941.

Yes, I followed.  Nuts, but worth it.

Yes, I followed. Nuts, but worth it.

“We will have to crawl a bit.” As you can see from the photograph of the tunnel entrance, “crawling” is not quite the term. “Squirming on your belly” would be closer. I didn’t want to play the soft American, so I just made sure someone was behind me and in front of me, and in I went. The squirming through the mud with my back scrapping against the ceiling seemed interminable, especially since I couldn’t hold the light and pull myself through at the same time. This had better be a good blog entry in the end, I thought. The substrate dropped below me and I slid down into a comfortable cavity (relatively speaking) about five feet high and lit fleetingly by the flashlights of the others ahead. I hunched over and crab-walked to the source of the lights, finally emerging in a mine tunnel fortunately higher than my head. Half success! (Full success is getting out, of course.)
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Now it is more interesting than terrifying. The mine cuts horizontally along bedding, so you can follow a single unit of rock throughout the tunnels, watching it change character with distance. The main rock is very white, relatively soft, and marked by the pickaxes of the miners. At about eye-level are darker beds with contortions which contrast dramatically with the flat-bedded sandstone below. Cracks descend down into the sandstone and are filled with iron pisolites (spherical structures made of hematite and from bb- to marble-size). In places the darker beds drop downward into complex breccias (conglomerates in which the clasts are very angular).

Cryokarst features in the abandoned mine tunnels.

Cryokarst features in the abandoned mine tunnels.

The interpretation of these rocks by Andrey Dronov is that they represent a Cambrian permafrost buried by Ordovician sediments. The reason the Ordovician clays, pisolites and siliciclastic sediments are contorted is that they had collapsed to varying degrees as the ice below them was melted after burial. We are looking, then, at a wonderful example of “cryokarst”, or the deformation of sediments associated with ice formation and melting. I had known of only such features in theory, never in practice. It is even more remarkable that these structures are almost half a billion years old. Well worth a bit of slithering through dark Russian mud!

First Find

June 5th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–When you’re a paleontologist in the field with other geologists for the first time, you need to prove your general scientific worth by either saying witty things or finding an excellent specimen right away. I went for the latter and picked up on our first outcrop the rhombiferans you see below. I’m golden now, at least for a few days.

Ordovician outcrop near the field house, and the beautiful eocrinoids found there.

Ordovician outcrop near the field house, and the beautiful rhombiferans (probably Glyptocystites) found there.

Rhombiferans are Early Paleozoic echinoderms which resemble crinoids and blastoids but have few brachioles (extensions around the mouth to filter food from the water). I’ve only previously seen random plates and holdfasts, so I was plenty surprised by these beauties. I donated them graciously, of course, to the echinoderm expert. This is not hard to do since Russian law does not allow foreigners to take fossils out of the country.

A Geological Field House

June 5th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–It is not your typical Russian dacha, this field house.  It was purchased partially-finished by Andrey because it is ideally located (N60.01114°, E32.56416°) very near important Paleozoic outcrops.  The setting is beautiful — on the top of a steep bank overlooking the Lynna River as it meets the larger Sass River.

Our field house on the first day of our work.

Our field house on the first day of our work.

There is no running water, but there is electricity (most of the time).  Heat was originally supplied by a large wood-burning stove, but alas (!) someone broke in and stole it before we arrived.  It is a very cold place right now, so I wear my down jacket all the time, even to bed.  The outhouse is … well … as basic as it can get in the hole-in-the-floor Russian fashion.  Our water comes either directly from the river or from a nearby well.  “Completely pure and safe to drink”, I’m told.  I’ve seen the outhouse, though, and I’m imagining a few hundred others like it upstream.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent base for just what we want to do.  One of the prime outcrops is just a few meters away from the front door, and the others we need on this expedition are mostly within 10 kilometers.  I can rough it here for two weeks, especially since there isn’t a mirror in the house.  Another benefit is that I’m a guest of the Russian Academy of Sciences — the lodging, food and transport here doesn’t cost a kopeck.

We are joined in this house and in the field by another member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nikolai Kuznetsov, and two geologist-technicians, Andrei Schatsilov and Sergei Orlov.  They are interested in tectonic and paleogeographic issues with the Lower Paleozoic of this area.

Sleeper Train West

June 5th, 2009

Andrey and I boarded a west-bound train in Moscow at 6:25 in the evening. It is a nine-hour ride to Volkhov, so the cars are equipped as sleepers. This meant that we shared an open compartment with two other people, and then at some point of mutual agreement we made our beds by placing sheets on thin mattresses and spreading them out on the seating benches and the two suspended bunks above. Andrey and I had upper bunks, which meant we climbed high and slid ourselves into narrow alcoves about two feet wide and something considerably less than 6’3″ long. My sock-clad feet hung out over the aisle, unfortunately, to be frequently bumped with a whispered “izveeneetyeh” (excuse me). Since our stop was at 3:15 a.m., I didn’t sleep well because I was worried they wouldn’t wake us.

Train loading at Moscow Station.

Train loading at Moscow Station.

The uniformed car attendants did wake us in time to fumble on our shoes and gather our luggage as the train slowed. I lugged that 57-pound suitcase of equipment down the dark aisle, doing a set of my own izveeneetyehs. We were dropped off on a railroad siding opposite the station, so all the passengers as a matter of course climbed down onto the tracks, crossing them in the dusky lighting of one of the famous “white nights”. We waited in the station another six hours for a local train to take us fifteen minutes to the field house, which is fortunately only 200 meters from the tracks. The temperature was 40° F with a light rain — not nearly as warm as I expected!

Train stop near the field house, Leningrad Region.

Train stop near the field house, Leningrad Region.

Touring Moscow

June 4th, 2009

MOSCOW, RUSSIA–As I write this entry and the following few, I’m deep in the Russian woods in a small “field house” with no internet connections.  I will post this entry and the others when I get the chance and back-date them so they show the day they were written, not posted.

This is a brief cultural note before the field accounts to come.  Andrey and Veronica Dronov picked me up from my hotel and gave me a wonderful tour of the primary Moscow sites.  We started with the Kremlin walls and then walked around Red Square.  Stalin and Lenin appeared to be posing for photos, so I checked their last resting places and confirmed that they are indeed still dead.
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Afterwards we had a minibus tour of the city, another walk through parks, and then a Tajik dinner (lamb kebabs for me).  My first impression is how very deep the history of this city is, from buildings erected by Ivan the Terrible through the drama of “Soviet times” to today’s attempts to soften Moscow’s public image with massive reconstruction of churches and other pre-revolutionary buildings.  This is also a city which is not easy for visitors to negotiate on their own.  I admire my daughter Amy even more for spending her junior year here.

The Miracle of Wireless

June 4th, 2009

Somehow I stumbled upon a wireless connection in my Moscow hotel room this morning. I shall post quickly before it vanishes. It disappears now and then, but I’ve thus far been able to retrieve it.

First, a couple of images from my recent neighborhood:

My hotel on the left.  On the right is some statuary they forgot to knock down.

My hotel on the left. On the right is some statuary they forgot to knock down.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in the airport and met my new friend Andrei Dronov from the Russian Academy of Sciences. It was a bit of a trick because he sent me a photo of his face for me to recognize and I learned quickly that there are many Russian faces like his at the airport! But I found him and we set off for the city center. Riding the Metro was an adventure in itself. It was like being shut up in a rocket and blasted into the darkness, although maybe a bit faster and noisier. It all worked out, though, even while schlepping 57 pounds of equipment.

The tiny bit of Moscow I’ve seen in the last few hours is very much like any megacity, save for the Cyrillic signs. The traffic is extraordinary, and the noise from it lasts through the night. There is plenty of food available from stalls on the streetsides. The blocky Stalinist buildings (like my hotel) are relieved by the occasional pre-Revolution stonework and the bright golden-domed churches. There is a streetcar system just outside my room which looks ancient, but it is fast and apparently efficient.

This evening I go with Andrei by train to St. Petersburg and then the Volkhov region to the southeast of the city. He describes our lodgings there as a “field camp”. It is an unfinished house taken over by geologists because of its prime position on a famous Ordovician outcrop. I doubt very much I will be posting through wireless from there!

My goal on this trip is to explore the Lower Ordovician hardgrounds and fossils to test some hypotheses I’ve developed over the years in other regions.  These Russian rocks are among the best exposed earliest Ordovician in the world.  I also want to see how feasible it will be to bring Independent Study students to these sites.

Wooster Geologist in Russia

June 3rd, 2009

My first day in Russia.  I’m in Moscow hotel lobby with only this cranky connection to the Internet, but I’m here.  Tomorrow I leave with my colleague Andrei Dronov for work in the St. Petersburg region on the Lower Ordovician.

I wish I could post some of my great photos of Moscow, but they willl have to come later.  I’ve already had adventures in the Metro and buying food.  All is well.  The geology will come when I can connect my computer to the Internet — which may not be for two weeks!

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