Liquid frost: the hyper-cold brine ponds of Sangiyn Dalai (3/3)

Conclusions regarding the brine ponds

After returning home I correlated the new discoveries with my previous observations on the salt flat. I had some presumptions even before, but now I realized the big picture. Let’s analyze the puzzle in parts:

Case 1:

When I first visited the area in January 2011 I found a decent sized pond, which I observed/ selected beforehand using a detailed satellite image. The imagery’s date is 2010 May 27, so it was less than a year old, when I went there. The circular lake I found was more than 10 meters in diameter and (as it was only partially frozen) I estimated the maximum depth to be more than 2 meters. The temperature of the upper layer was -21 degrees Celsius. I returned here about 10 days later and found the pond frozen, except a small portion near one shore, where I measured -22 degrees Celsius close to the surface.

 

One of the biggest brine ponds of the salt flat, now inexistent (January 2011)

Next winter, In January 2012 I revisited this place and found this lake completely frozen, covered with a thick layer of salty ice. The ice was so massive I could safely walk on it and dig holes on its surface to study the brine beneath. The temperature under the ice was -23 degrees Celsius. This was an expected value as the solution beneath the ice became even more dense, conversely has even lower freezing point than before. But I was a little surprised to not found a single place where the depth exceeded 130-140 cm. I thought maybe it’s caused by more salt deposition on the bottom as the brine became even more denser during the freezing-point depression.

This particular pond wasn’t visited in the following years, I returned here only this winter, in February 2019. There was no lake, not even a shallow, frozen one. I rechecked the coordinates in my GPS at home and correlated with the imagery, but it was no doubt: that water body disappeared.

Case 2:

In January 2014 I was back to the salt flats. This time I accidentally discovered a new lake, which I recognized to be one of the bigger ponds visible on the same 2010 May 27 imagery. The 8 meter diameter circular pond was unfrozen and I measured below -23 degrees Celsius close to the surface. The shores were steep, the bottom at the deepest portion wasn’t clear because of the considerable depth, which was probable more than 2 meters.

 

This lake still exist, but now is less deep (February 2019)

In February 2016 I returned to see this lake. This was an exceptionally cold winter with -46 degrees recorded at Zavkhan weather station at the end of January. The lake was now covered with a thick layer of salty slush, but its temperature was only -18 degrees Celsius, a few degrees warmer than before, unfrozen. Maybe because of the changing in the surface layer’s composition? Or because of the higher solar angle in late February? Not sure. I checked the depth of the lake using the poles of my tent and found out that the ground was very uneven on the bottom. In some places it was 1.5 m, in others (just a little farther) less than 1 m. But far from 2 meters at any point.

Case 3:

In January 2014 I searched for eutectic frozen brine, so I was looking for very shallow ponds. However I was surprised not to found a deeper lake in one particular area, as I remembered from the imagery there is one. There were some shallow frozen ponds, but none of them had considerable depth (less than 0.5 meters) as I was expecting.

 

The newly found lake is situated in an area, where on the old imagery are visible some water bodies of variable depths, but this one wasn’t there in 2010

This winter, in February 2019 I discovered this new, 2 meters deep brine lake (where I’ve accomplished the dive), which I thought to be the one I couldn’t found in 2014. But after analyzing the exact coordinates I figured out that this lake is not exactly on the same place, where the deeper pond on the imagery appears. Also the shape is different. And the deeper pond (according to the imagery) is no longer there. This lake has the slush temperature of around -22 degrees Celsius, with the incredible bottom temperature of +2 degrees. As this sensor with the 3 m long cable is a new one, I have no infos regarding the bottom temperature of the other ponds in the former research years, but I suppose, that in the case of the deeper ones, the stratification can be similar.

Case 4:

This winter, in February 2019 I discovered this partially unfrozen, new pond of around 4 meters in diameter, with the surface temperature of -24 degrees Celsius. After returning home I found out that at those coordinates there is no lake on the 2010 imagery, not even a tiny one. The imagery has a 0.5 meters resolution, so even smaller features are identifiable (like camels or bovines). It’s clear: on that date this pond didn’t existed.

 

The “new-born pond”

Taking into account the above mentioned facts, regarding the geomorphological/ hydrological aspect my major conclusion is that the lifespan of these brine ponds is small (usually less than a decade), they are constantly forming by the action of the springs under the salt crust (underground erosion/ dissolution) and disappearing by the formation of new salt deposits on the bottom of the water bodies (colmatation with evaporites).

 

The aerial view of a part of the salt pan from 2010 May 27: black arrow pointing to “Case 1 pond”, yellow arrow to “Case 2 pond”, teal arrow to “Case 3 pond”, red arrow (+ sign) to “Case 4 pond” (coordinates of this point) and the blue triangle is the location of my tent in 2019            Zoom in for a better view

Regarding the water temperatures my observation is that the surface layer generally reaches the slush state between -20 and -25 degrees Celsius, in most cases around -21, -22 degrees. There are some smaller ponds, where I saw liquids even close to -29 degrees Celsius. As the water bodies are not far from each other (sometimes it’s only a few meters between them), I consider that the general ratio between the solution’s components must be (almost) the same and these fluctuations between the freezing points are mainly caused by general concentration and not ratio changes between the constituents.

Another thing I could mention is that when the surface layer reaches the slush state at a certain temperature, the deeper layers must have an even lower freezing point as in the case of salt water the density rises constantly with the temperature decrease, so if the deeper, unfrozen layer is still heavier than the upper one, its freezing point is certainly lower. This also means that the surface layer’s slush can never reach the maximum possible concentration of the solution.

 

Note: After I get the water sample analysis results from Budapest (hopefully soon) I will update this section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liquid frost: the hyper-cold brine ponds of Sangiyn Dalai (2/3)

                     Journey photo album

 

Ulaanbaatar. Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian Lunar New Year) with my guide, Gansukh’s family

 

The center of Khovd, capital of the aimag with the same name and also of entire Western Mongolia

 

Street in Khovd with Ulaan Uul (Red Mountain) in the background

 

Mosque in the town. A significant kazakh minority lives in the town, who are muslims

 

On the way to Sangiyn Dalai. Somewhere near Khar Us lake’s shore

 

After crossing the barren plateau between the basins of Khar Us and Khyargas lakes we approached the target, deviating from the Zavkhan road using the GPS (around 130-140 km’s from Khovd). The weather is excellent on the salt flats: sunny, cold and no wind. I am in time to explore a little and raise my tent before sunset

 

This nice lake was my biggest hope to found unfrozen brine with decent size, but now it was covered by a thick slush layer. I know this jewel from previous trips and saw it unfrozen at -23 degrees Celsius (!). Now the slush is above -20, maybe the last snowy days diluted a little the surface layer’s composition

 

A little farther I observed a smaller pond, which was only partially covered, with the salt formations on the bottom visible. This is what I am looking for. The temperature of the uppermost layer is below -20. Great

 

I found a good place for the tent on a slightly convex portion. For my surprise I can even secure it as the salty ground was just perfect (not too soft, not too hard) at these low temperatures

 

Just before sunset, after only a few minutes walk from my tent: What the heck is this? Oh yeah, it’s unfrozen!

 

And it’s VERY deep! At least 1.5, but rather 2 meters! Astonished to found this outstanding water body here. A really pleasant gift for the end of the day. Hmmm… Yep, I can do it. I felt huge amounts of dopamine invading my body

 

On the surface it was around -20 degrees Celsius, but for my big surprise the sensor set on the bottom showed +1.8 degrees! As outside air temperature was below -25, this is really weird. I don’t believe, that the solar radiation can cause this, it’s more likely caused by a strong spring under the salt bed. I will let the sensor here during the night to observe the fluctuation. Unfortunately this logger is said to work only above -30 degrees, so I have little chances to monitor the entire night. Certainly will be below -35

 

As I expected, a very cold night was waiting for me. One of the coldest I ever spent in tent. You need to be prepared here, no chances to survive without the proper equipment

 

This is outside near surface temperature beside the tent. I haven’t observed the conversion to Fahrenheit scale as at -40 the two are exactly the same. Probably I pressed some combinations of buttons, which caused this change

 

During the severely cold night even this special lake froze. Except for a small portion near the steepest side, the brine pond was covered with a thin crust (around 0.5 cm) of salty ice. Bad news for me: looks like my big plan can’t be realized… Then again, despite the extreme conditions the logger was constantly recording. The bottom of the pond cooled only very little from yesterday afternoon as the device showed +1.2 degrees in the morning

 

Even though, I have a lot to do here as the entire ecosystem is extraordinary. This dark colored salt crust can melt the snow cover even below -30 degrees. No other dry surface is capable of this

 

This matte-white substance is completely frozen brine, an eutectic mixture of pure salt and ice. Very shallow ponds can reach this state during exceptionally cold nights, like the previous one

 

A quite dangerous place to walk around as sometimes the salt crust is very thin and it can break under your weight

 

Measuring the temperature of a pond. Meanwhile I realized the Celsius to Fahrenheit scale change, but (as I never done it before) couldn’t figure out the button combination necessary for this action and left it like this. As a matter of fact my purpose was to explore/ monitor liquids with negative temperatures not only in Celsius (which can be attained even in the case of sea water), but also in Fahrenheit scale, which means below -17.8 degrees Celsius. Therefore this unexpected joke of the fate wasn’t really a problem for me

 

In many parts the salty surface reminds me of the spiky skin of the moloch, a weird australian reptile

 

There are also very tiny ponds, like small holes in the salt crust

 

Around noon I found the big pond unfrozen again. Even if the air temperature didn’t rise above -30 degrees, under the midday sun the hard crust of the morning has transformed into a thin layer of slush. No words. It’s dream-like. After all I can do The Dive (details in part 1). Note: This picture was made by the “self-timer/10 seconds” function of the camera, using the tripod

 

After the experiment: the equipment on the lake’s shore

 

The unperturbed midday sun and complete calm helped me to accomplish this performance safe at -30 degrees air temperature

 

Standing on the place from where I’ve done the plunge

 

Mission complete. Time to leave, the driver will come after me soon

 

The Seeriyn Nuuryn Ulaan range in the distance

 

This part is a little saggy. Not dangerous, but you can’t cross it without mocking your boots

 

Camels grazing not far from the salt flats. I saw them every year in this grassy area

 

Some smaller dunes

 

Still no wind, hence I feel comfortable moderately clad below -25 degrees. But the hoarfrost don’t lie

 

The driver is punctual

 

Ganbold and his UAZ. This russian 4wd car is still common in Western Mongolia, but in the central and eastern part of the country the new korean and japanese jeeps have mostly displaced them. However the driver told me that those are not really good in the winter as diesel fuel is more sensitive to the extreme cold

 

Following our track on the way back to the road

 

This is the “main road” between Khovd town and Zavkhan sum. We haven’t seen a single car for about two hours

 

He is an experienced driver, which is a must in this harsh wilderness. Mongolian drivers are also good mechanics. The two profession is one single here. You must be able to repair your car if needed as localities/ car services are very far from each other

 

The final section on the new chinese-built asphalt road

 

Two days later I visited Khovd museum. Snow leopard skin and ibex. The former prey on the latter

 

Ibex and argali (Marco Polo sheep) horns. Both animals are very large and robust, considerable bigger than their european cousins

 

Stone heads of turkic origin. Before the mongols this region was ruled by turkic tribes. Kazakhs are also part of them and in the Altai mountains (especially in Bayan Ölgiy province) they are still the majority

 

Some war related artifacts

 

More mongolian ethnic groups are living in Khovd province. Each one has his own specific clothing

 

The brown ones are kazakh

 

Religious artifacts. Buddhism is the dominant religion of the country

 

After two days rest in Khovd we start the trip to the Altai Mountains, my second target. Herds of mixed sheep & goat are very common in Mongolia

 

Crossing Khashaat pass (2550 meters) on the border of Khovd and Bayan Ölgiy provinces. From now on we are on kazakh land

 

Tsast Uul (around 4200 meters) the highest peak of the Tsambagarav range is in front of us. Now we are heading to visit a kazakh family who are hunting with eagles, but tomorrow I will return to the mountain

 

Nice weather and is likely to be the same in the following days. The previous night was cloudy, the ground is covered with a thin layer of fresh snow

 

Yeah, this is the road…

 

Lonely tree near a frozen river. There were no others even in the bigger surroundings

 

This can happen here at any time, but Ganbold knows his profession

 

Meanwhile the mighty Tsast Uul is watching us

 

Approaching Altantsögts, the village where the “eagle family” lives

 

And here we are

 

After lunch we are heading to the nearby hills to hunt with the eagle. My host is the multiple national champion of the “eagle festival” held every year in Ulaanbaatar and also in other locations outside Mongolia

 

“Kran” is the kazakh name for eagle. They are trained to hunt foxes, rabbits, even wolves. This is an important local tradition

 

“Hmmm, what can I eat here? I can see only sheeps and goats…”

 

We move to another location. The master’s son is handling the big bird

 

I observe on a neighboring ledge another “eagle man” on horseback

 

“I’m too hungry, can’t wait more. I will eat this rival!”

 

Nope. We are friends and will continue the hunt together

 

As no wild meet is available, we are playing with what we have

 

Ganbold is not big a fan of hiking. At least not by foot 😉

 

No rabbits, but still wonderful here

 

Tsast Uul in the distance. We will meet tomorrow

 

For a lil’ while I became a kazakh. Or it’s maybe more? Many people say hungarians are related to kazakhs

 

The champion with his honours

 

Kran serving dinner. Our meal was also lots of meat, traditional kazakh style. They eat even the eye of the sheep (I admit I skipped that one). No place for vegans here

 

Next morning we start the way to the mountain

 

The night was starry, but now the clouds are invading the sky. The top of Tsambagarav is covered by altocumulus lenticularis

 

Stopping/ eating in an isolated mongol yurt. As I understood, kazakh yurts are bigger, hence more difficult to keep it warm during winters. Therefore kazakhs are living in houses in the cold season

 

This doesn’t looks very good. The forecast showed only partially cloudy for today

 

We reached close to 2500 meters elevation and soon I started the ascent. It’s noon now. My plan for today is to set my camp a little higher and do an acclimatization trip to 3000-3500 meters

 

The tent was raised at 2700 meters elevation. It wasn’t easy. No strong wind, but those frozen rocks…

 

The weather worsened as I climbed higher. The wind intensified and snow started to fall. Anyhow I reached above 3500 meters, that’s enough for today

 

Back to the camp. In the late afternoon the weather conditions improved and the night was completely starry. It was much more comfortable in the tent than at Sangiyn Dalai as it was about 10 degrees warmer. So I rested pretty well

 

As I expected (and hoped) the next morning the weather was good. I started the climb in dark. Temperatures in the -20s, but the windchill was quite strong. On the surface certainly was colder as my feet felt it soon. On the mountain, because of the steep terrain you are more predisposed to frostbites as the contact with the solid surface is much longer than when you walk on flat terrain. Altitude also worsens this

 

Nice sunrise, but not (yet) for me. Since I climb from the west I am in the shadow of the mountain

 

Reaching a flatter portion above 3600 meters elevation. Now I can see what is waiting for me in the final part. More than I thought

 

Traversing an exposed, edgy section with some easy technical parts. No need for the crampons until now. The snow is small and has good consistence, the wind is mild to moderate

 

Finally, somewhere above 3800 meters the Sun found me. Or I found him. I climbed constantly for more than 3 hours, it’s time to eat something. That something is goji berries & pecan nuts

 

The steep rocky part soon is over. I feel the altitude. No sickness, but I’m sluggish

 

Definitely crampons time. At around 4000 meters

 

After 5 hours of strenuous effort from the camp I reached the top of Tsast Uul. The GPS shows between 4200-4210 meters. On the maps usually appears with 4193 m, so it’s pretty close. Ganbold told me no climbers are going to Tsambagarav in the winter, not even mongolians. Instead in the summer many, including westerners

 

Looking to the east (towards Khovd)

 

The top is very flat, more like a plateau

 

A zoom to the west: many other high peaks of the Mongol Altai

 

Now it’s almost noon, the temperature (still in Fahrenheit) is only slightly colder than my bath in Zavkhan sum (-22.3 in Celsius). Of course this is not a correct measurement, but when it’s windy solar radiation has little effect on the sensor

 

The steep slope of the glacier

 

There are some hidden crevasses under the snow on the ice cap. This hole was made by me, involuntary of course. Fortunately I had the luck and strength to pull myself out before disappearing completely. The driver told me that Khüiten Uul’s Potanin glacier is extremely dangerous because of these formations and according to his knowledge it was a single mongolian climber who reached the top of the 4374 meters peak (highest in Mongolia) in the winter, but he died on the descent

 

I will follow the same way back. When it’s steep on the ice is safer to step backwards

 

It’s warmer and the wind is light. The hard part is over. I forgot a thermos somewhere during the ascent, but I will recover it following my trails. Otherwise soon it will be tough for my kidneys…

 

On the last part the weather became really warm as the wind stopped completely and the early afternoon sun was doing his best. At a certain time I felt comfortable in a single blouse. Incredible how much difference between the windy morning and this abundance of radiation. Only rocks. Pretty tiring as the snow is small and your feet are constantly unstable on the steep slope

 

I saw the driver’s car coming while descending the mountain. He arrived much sooner this time, maybe he was a little worried. I packed everything in time (also have found the lost thermos) and started the last, easy part back to the meeting point

 

I’m okay, he’s okay, Khovd is waiting for us

 

It was my pleasure

 

Because of the snow drifts we must found another way through the rocks. It was on the limits, the car almost crashed at a certain point. Thanks to the drivers experience we managed to get out from the labyrinth

 

Last view of Tsambagarav. Or maybe not?

 

Back to the asphalt we stopped to eat beside the road, then helped another guy to start his frozen diesel engine. Here people always help each other as they know very well what it means to be blocked in the middle of nowhere

 

My hotel room in Khovd. See the picture? Its Tsambagarav

 

Giant mongolian boot (gutul) in the center of the town. Its match is on the other side of the road

 

Next day I go to a hike to Ulaan Uul sandstone mountain in the vicinity of the town. Frosty morning in Khovd. And back to Celsius  🙂

 

He has the teeth, I have the ice axe. But the contact remained only verbal

 

Ulaan Uul at sunrise

 

It’s colder than on the mountain. But without the windchill is not that bad

 

After about 10 km’s on the road I turned to the right and started to climb the mountain from the back side. Because of the new snow layer now is dangerous to try the rocky front side

 

Following goat trails between the sandstone boulders

 

On the top is much warmer and there is still no wind. The thermal inversion is very strong

 

Khökh Seeriyn mountains, another 4000er

 

Khovd in the mist. You can see the runway beside

 

And…Tsambagarav. Again

 

Descending on the same side. From the road I hitchhiked and reached the town by car. The traffic is rare, but the few cars will certainly stop for you. Often without waving

 

Restaurant in Khovd. Today is Sunday, many of them is closed, including this one. I can’t order my favorite soup…

 

Next day I have the flight back to UB

 

Approaching Ulaanbaatar. This winter is completely free of snow in the capital

 

With my buddy 🙂

 

The Government Palace on the Chinggis Square

 

The Giant Buddha statue of the Gandan monastery

 

Turquoise reflections on the streets of Ulaanbaatar. It’s almost spring here

 

Stone caravan on the way to the airport. I will certainly return here

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liquid frost: the hyper-cold brine ponds of Sangiyn Dalai (1/3)

Intro: Freezing-point depression

This chapter will be a little different than the “classic exiles” as the research’s main target will be not air, but water and beside this the writing has a separate personal/ philosophical section. However the plan is strongly related to the local climate’s peculiarities, therefore worthy to include here as a new episode.

We know that water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. In a practical approach a mixture of ice and water has always this same temperature, not influenced by the elevation (atmospheric pressure) as in the case of the water’s boiling point, which can decrease very much in the high mountains. This is valid for pure H2O, but if we dissolve some substances in the water (especially salts) the freezing point will start to decrease.

In the case of NaCl (rock salt) at maximum concentration (23.3%) this can go as low as -21.1 degrees Celsius. There are a few other salts (MgCl, CaCl), which can decrease the freezing point even farther. This is lab science, but how about nature?

 

The relation between the temperature and the salt content in the case of NaCl solution

Sea water contains around 3.5% salt and freezes at -2 degrees Celsius. The Arctic and Antarctic waters have this temperature under the ice. Are somewhere on the planet conditions so extreme to cool liquids to temperatures much lower than this?

 

Choosing the target

As you can conclude there are two terms, which are crucial here: 1. extremely salty water (brine), 2. severe cold. The combination of these two is mandatory.

Regarding nature/ climate, the first premise is mostly related to aridity, where the lack of rainfall and the strong evaporation will increase the salt content of the water bodies situated on the bottom of the closed basins and the second premise is about persistent seasonal cold, when these concentrated fluids are exposed to very low temperatures for a long time. Something like a crossing between the Dead Sea and Siberia? That’s right.

After a thorough pondering I’ve concluded that outside of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys (where this kind of environment has already been studied: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Juan_Pond), north-western Mongolia offer the best conditions for this phenomenon to happen.

 

 

Here are places which receive rainfall so low as Death Valley in the US, while at the same time have average winter temperatures similar with Central Siberia. Zavkhan sum of Uvs aimag is a good example for this combination of extremes, where the mean yearly precipitation is around 50-60 mm and the average January temperature is under -28 degrees Celsius.

Beside this, winter is the dry season, therefore snowfalls are quite rare and inconsistent here, with January and February averages under 1 mm and the snow thickness of the midwinter is usually between 0-5 cm. Locals refer to 4-5 cm as “big snow”.

 

 

Because of its dry climate the Great Lakes Basin of Western Mongolia has many salt lakes/ flats, which due to the higher mineral content, in the winter-time can cool down to much lower temperatures than the sea-water before freezing.

I chose the salt pan of Sangiyn Dalai lake in southern Uvs aimag (situated around 1030 meters above the sea level) to be my research area for this new purpose, where I suppose to have excellent chances to found liquids in natural context at extremely low temperatures.

 

The location of the Sangiyn Dalai salt pan on the map of Mongolia (red dot)

Brief summary of the research

I reached the salt flats on 9th of February and set my camp on its surface in the afternoon. I know this area for some time (I’ve been here more times in the past winters) and with the help of a detailed satellite image and GPS I identified many small and medium sized brine ponds/ lakes (1-20 meters in diameter) which can remain unfrozen at air temperatures lower than -30 degrees Celsius.

 

Satellite view of the lake and salt flats (brown part on the western shores)

This season is an average one, but now became colder as the daily maximum remained below -25 degrees and were good chances to have a night minimum of around -40. The sky is clear, the air is still. The typical thermal inversion of the mongolian winter. The snow cover in the area is around 3-4 cm thick and is only partial on the salty surface.

 

My tent in the salt desert

The particular lake I hoped to found unfrozen had now a layer of salty slush on its surface, hence the bottom pattern was not visible. The liquid’s temperature was close, but not below -20 degrees. Not far away I found a smaller one, which was only partially covered and was colder (below -20 near the surface).

Shortly after the tent was raised I discovered another lake, which was between the few still unfrozen water bodies seen by me on this day. But this one was more impressive than the others as it was significantly bigger (around 8-10 meters long) and surprisingly deep (around 2 meters) for its size.

 

The newly discovered unfrozen brine lake

The uppermost layer had a stunning temperature of -21, -22 degrees Celsius, but for my great amazement at the bottom it was above 0 degrees (+1.8 to be precise). This “warm” bottom cooled only very little even after the frosty -40 degrees night, the device shoved +1.2 degrees Celsius.

While there was a thin crust of salty ice on the surface of the lake, a small portion near the steepest side remained unfrozen. I concluded that this strange phenomenon must be caused by a strong spring under the salt bed.

 

Measuring the temperature of another pond . This is Fahrenheit scale, in Celsius it means -24.5 degrees

Even if the air temperature did not rise above -30 degrees Celsius, at midday the solid crust had transformed to a pasty slush. I collected half liters of brine from this lake with the purpose to found out the exact composition of the minerals (and maybe microorganisms) in the solution after returning home.

 

The coldest dive

As a “cold fanatic” I had a big dream for a long while, when I accidentally discovered the hyper-cold solutions near a former bay of Uvs lake: having the coldest bath ever taken by a human. This wish later transformed to “performing the coldest dive” as an even more complete form of the previous. And I want to do this unsupported, alone in the wilderness. After many years of planning, struggle and bad luck related to injuries and improper climatic conditions, on 10th of February 2019 shortly after midday the time has come.

 

After a -40 degree night even this special lake froze

This newly discovered lake has the size & shape ideal for my plan and the actual conditions were just on the limits of the coldest possible as most of the water body had some thin slush on its surface. I am here, physically, logistically and mentally prepared. Let’s do it.
I call this “The Convergence”.

After relocating the tent close to the lake’s shore and sorting everything to help me in this action, at 1:30 PM I was ready. Shorts, scuba gloves & socks, swimming goggles & cap. Just the minimal protection for this extreme environment. Most of my body will be in direct contact with the hyper-cold fluid. The temperature of the uppermost layer represented by the salty slush was around -22 degrees Celsius.

You have VERY short time here, no fumbling or bad calculation will be excused. The body looses heat 25-30 times faster in water than in air and at these freezing temperatures the solution can cause you frostbites in less than 30 seconds (!), much sooner than hypothermia can install, even before hyperventilation is over. And this is valid for any part of exposed skin. Frostbite is by far the biggest risk here. I know very well what this medium is capable of as it is not the first time I expose myself to these elements.

 

Traversing the hyper-cold lake

The dive went smooth. Good adherence on the margin, haven’t touched the bottom or the side with any body part, no brine entered inside the goggles and I managed to get out of the water in less than 15 (maybe 10) seconds.

 

Close-up of the thermometer: -7.3 degrees in Fahrenheit means -21.8 in Celsius (the sensor inside the brine slush)

Because of the speed I haven’t seen almost anything while underwater, reaching/ grabbing the other side and pulling my body out of this natural rapid-freezer in a single flow-like movement. The coldest sensation was just when I emerged/ left the water as then my entire body passed through the -20 degrees brine-slush layer. Probable the fastest cooling rate a human ever experienced.

 

The equipment used in the experiment

After out from the lake I knew the real danger was over. The tent was waiting for me with the strong greenhouse effect inside. The temperature difference between exterior and interior was certainly above 20 degrees Celsius in this part of the day.

I guess many people will think it’s still very dangerous when you are out wet at -30 degrees, but I can tell you from this and previous similar experiences that during midday sun and complete calm, for a few minutes you are safe, it’s almost “comfortable”. Of course, this feeling is enhanced by the adrenaline and endorphine rushes, preceded by massive dopamine ammounts and followed/ topped by serotonin release. A complex and thick biochemical cocktail. Genuine catharsis.

 

Mission complete

The instruments used in the field

-One LogTag Tred30-7R data logger with the measuring range between -40 and +99 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.

 

The LogTag data logger measuring the bottom temperature of the brine pond

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

Aguita Brava volcano: Mars on Earth (3/3)

Interpretation of the logger’s graph

 

The temperature curve of the 7 day research period. I configured the device at home in Romania. Take therefore away 7 hours from the graph’s time to reach the bolivian local time. The 15:21 starting value means 8:21 AM

As I found the tripod with the instruments fallen over and partially buried under the snow on June 27, I had to found out when this happened. Analyzing the graph I noticed a remarkably elevated maximum temperature of 16.8 degrees Celsius in the early afternoon of June 22. That’s definitively an impossible value at these altitudes. The certitude regarding this conclusion is confirmed by the extreme fluctuation what happened shortly afterwards, when in a matter of a single hour the temperature dropped more than 14 degrees than rised again more than 10 degrees.

This would certainly not happen if the sensor was properly sheltered in the radiation shield. Here the sensor was over-exposed and the extreme temperature change must be caused by alternating windy and calm periods. So the fall over happened before. But when?

Closer view of the unrealistic high with the following dubious fluctuations (zoom in the image)

The first two days (when I was present in the region) are excluded. At the time the weather was fine, without even moderate wind. The temperature curve of this period is also realistic. Going a little ahead the things started to make sense. In the night of 21-22 the temperature was suspiciously high and constant (between -1 and -5 degrees). This can happen here only during very cloudy or windy weather (or both). And in the next day was the dubious 16.8 degrees maximum. Puzzle solved.
On the other hand in the last 4 days the maximums didn’t climbed above 0 degrees. This is probably because the sensor became snow covered. As the minimums of these days are quite low (approaching -20 degrees) and the temperature curves are looking regular I suppose the weather was again clear and not very windy (at least in the night).

After this short detective work let’s go back to the scientific evaluation. We have only 2 days to take in consideration as having valid datas:

June 20: This first day was the luckiest with both the lowest (-26.6 degrees Celsius) and highest (4.0 degrees Celsius) temperatures, respectively the biggest daily thermal amplitude (30.6 degrees).

The curve of the first day with the sharpest temperature rise (take away 7 hours to reach the bolivian local time)

During this interval happened a temperature rise of 12.7 degrees in 60 minutes and 6.7 degrees in 15 minutes.
Even if the weather station started its activity more than an hour after the astronomical sunrise, because the crater’s bottom was still in shade the inversion wasn’t affected before the sun reached the lowest elevations. This fact can be clearly seen in the graph, where the temperature remains almost uncheanched between 8:21 and 8:51. The minimum was registered at 8:36 AM.

The datas from the first hour of observation (take away 7 hours to reach the bolivian local time)

Then the temperature started to rise very fast and in less than 3 hours and a half climbed to +4 degrees, the maximum of the day. What’s interesting this happened pretty soon, just after midday. In the early afternoon the curve became close to an isotherma, remaining mainly around 2-2.5 degrees Celsius. In the latter part of the afternoon the temperature started to plummet and the vigorous fall continued during the evening hours. I was not present in the crater in this warmest period, but the extreme temperature rise was obvious also outside. It was absolutely no wind even at noon. A light breeze started after 1 PM. This explains why the maximum was registered at 12:16 PM.

June 21: The temperature dropped to -22.1 degrees Celsius in the morning at 7:46 AM. The sharp rise started again just before 9 AM and continued to the noon when reached 3.7 degrees, the days maximum. You can observe an outstanding upward curve during the first part of the night when the temperature rised from -16 to -5 degrees before starting to plummet again. It means even light winds can seriously disturb the night inversions in the basin. The amplitude for this day is 25.8 degrees, quite big, but significantly less than the first days’s 30.6 degrees. The night was clear again, but sometimes I noticed a light breeze at my camp (the same place, around 6 km’s from the crater). The near surface temperature was also less low than in the first night (more than 5 degrees milder). There were some cirrus clouds in the morning. I was present in the surroundings to around 3 PM and the weather was comparable with the day before: sunny, calm or light winds and quite warm for these elevations.

General conclusions

-If the weather is clear and calm the inversion layer in the crater is thick (filling completely the endorheic basin).
-During ideal conditions the lowest temperatures occur around 8-8:30 AM. The inversion is destroyed only well after the astronomical sunrise, when the sun reaches the bottom of the caldera.
-When is partial snow cover the head level air temperature above the snowy part is much closer to the ground level temperature above the uncovered part than to the snow surface temperature just below. The minimum temperatures above the snow surface are much lower than in the air above (up to 8-9 degrees difference).

-Because the first air movements usually start after midday the maximums are registered around noon when the heating of the ground is at peak levels.
-Clear skies are prevalent in the area during winter, but the calm conditions are much rarer. Strong winds (mainly westerly) blow often even at the crater’s bottom.
-The nights and mornings have more calm periods, the afternoon beeing the windiest part of the day.
-During windy weather the night minimums are significantly warmer (up to 20 degrees Celsius).
-The cooling period has a much longer curve than the warming period. The steepest parts of the graph are the ones just after the sun reaches the depression’s bottom, but it continues quite abrupt to the noon without major changes.
-The daily thermal amplitude can exceed 30 degrees, producing probably one of the biggest fluctuations in the entire world. *
-The minimums can go down well below -25 degrees (very likely also below -30 in certain conditions), lower than the current bolivian national record (-31 degrees Celsius) and maybe than any other official temperature measured between the tropics.

*The actual world record for the highest amplitude in 24 hours is more than 55 degrees Celsius and it was observed in Browning, Montana-USA. However this is a completely different kind of temperature change as the big difference was caused by a sudden change in the weather conditions and not by the pure physical potential of the local air.

 

Comparing my results with the local and global statistics

After the return to La Paz I visited the National Meteorological & Hydrological Service of Bolivia. There I found out some important datas:
-The lowest official temperature ever measured in a bolivian settlement is -25.7 degrees and it was registered in Uyuni (around 3700 meters elevation).
-The lowest official temperature ever measured in Bolivia is -31 degrees and it was registered at Laguna Colorada Weather Station in May 1992, close to the lake with the same name (around 4300 meters elevation).

The chart with the lunar/ annual minimums recorded at Laguna Colorada

-On 20 June 2018, when my logger recorded -26.6 in the crater of Aguita Brava volcano the minimum temperature in Uyuni was -9.4 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately they have no infos about Laguna Colorada for the same day. They only sometimes get datas from there. My guess is when those -25.7 and -31 degrees happened it was continuous snow cover in both locations. The difference between a -9.4 and a -25.7 degrees is enormous and can’t be explained otherwise, taking in consideration the weather was constantly clear and even windless on 20 June 2018.

The minimum and maximum temperatures in South America on June 20, 2018 with Potosi (Bolivia) having the biggest thermal amplitude : 27.1 degrees Celsius: from -10.5 to 16.6 degrees Celsius (source: Ogimet)

In the period of my staying it was no snow cover in Uyuni nor in any other place in the country situated below 4000 meters and the satellite datas showed the immediate surroundings of Laguna Colorada it was also free of snow. Definitely out of question to go even close to -31 degrees under these circumstances. During my visit the caldera was only partially snow covered and still went down to -26.6 degrees Celsius and close to the snow surface even much lower (-35 degrees). Interestingly the temperature close to the uncovered surface was about the same as the air at head level above the snow. I have no doubt if the same atmospheric conditions are present and there is continuous snow cover in the crater the minimum would go well below -30 degrees, surpassing the lowest official bolivian temperature.

 

Coldest place between the tropics?

To my knowledge beside Laguna Colorada there is a single place situated on tropical latitudes where the temperature plummeted below -30 degrees. It’s Ollagüe in Chile with -37 degrees Celsius. This is the lowest temperature measured between the tropics what I found on the net. Ollagüe settlement is situated right on the border with Bolivia, but it is also a high volcano named Ollagüe nearby. The village’s elevation is similar with Uyuni’s and much lower than Laguna Colorada’s, so a -37 degrees there is a little dubious for me. Maybe it was registered somewhere on the volcano? Is this data reliable at all? Maybe it was only -27? It looks much more realistic for a place situated at 3700 meters elevation at these latitudes. However, until solid facts reveal the truth this remains an open question.

In my opinion the crater of Aguita Brava is a strong canditate for both the titles “the tropical pole of cold” and “the pole of diurnal thermal amplitudes”.

 

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Aguita Brava volcano: Mars on Earth (2/3)

                      Journey photo album

 

Rough start with one full day delay. At Miami airport

 

My hotel room in La Paz . Pretty cool, but clean and has good hot shower

 

Basilica of San Francisco, one of the most emblematic buildings of the capital (16th century)

 

The center

 

Visiting Tiwanaku pre-columbian archeological site the next day: The “Gate of the Sun”

 

Another famous statue of the religious complex

 

It’s easy to make new friends here  🙂

 

Huayna Potosi (6088 m) seen from the road back to El Alto

 

Descending to the city center with an aerial cable car (the cheapest and fastest method)

 

La Paz: Crowded traffic with lots of street vendors on both sides

 

Arriving in Uyuni (hostel)

 

Starting from Uyuni with a private driver to the south-western alpine desert, where my target is located. There are daily flights from the capital. Uyuni is a prosperous touristic center, all because of the nearby Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flat in the world (more than 10.000 square km’s, over 140 km’s in diameter)

 

San Cristobal silver mine

 

Villa Alota village

 

Climbing higher and higher. I start to feel dizzy

 

At over 4600 meters it is obvious: I’m not well acclimated…

 

Snowy peaks on the chilean border

 

Approaching the Eduardo Avaroa National Park. You need to buy an entrance fee here

 

Straight towards my target

 

The final part became more wintry, but still manageable without any technical difficulties. We are approaching 4900 meters elevation

 

I start the journey by foot around 1:30 PM from near the fumaroles and hot muds of the Sol de Manana complex. Some tourists are present at the bigger geysers. The weather is quite windy and felt much colder than at the lower elevations

 

First time above 5000 meters. I’m in good shape but the backpack feels heavy at these altitudes. The breathing is difficult. From here I can see Aguita Brava volcano in front of me

 

Tired, around 5 PM I set my camp on the barren plateau. No tent, only a bivy sack and a good sleeping bag. My survival strategy is to shelter from the westerly winds behind a big boulder

 

Below -20 degrees on the ground beside me. The night is clear and surprisingly even windless. The Milky Way looks completely different from these heights. It is more similar to the nebulas seen on Discovery or National Geographic. After some hours of strong headache and nausea I start to feel better and decide to climb the mountain in the dark to reach the crater’s bottom before sunrise. I leave the unnecesary things here, securing the bivy sack with nearby rocks and at 4 AM I’m heading to the volcano

 

The main peak was farther than I thought. The sunrise found me struggling on the ridge. But the view is awesome!

 

Finally at 5500 meters on the top of Aguita Brava. No wind even here, I feel very lucky

 

First view of the crater. The lowest part still in shade. What? A lake? I didn’t expected this. The place is completely dry on GoogleEarth

 

While descending in the caldera I suddenly feel how the cold is intensifying. It means the inversion layer is thick, filling the entire endorheic part of the basin. Okay, it’s no water nor ice at the bottom, only a dry lakebed. But a strange thin mist was present on the lowermost layer. Probably this tricked me. First I thought it is something related to the volcanic activity like the fumaroles at Sol de Manana

 

I do a quick near surface measurement with the electronic precision device. Wow! That’s really impressive for a tropical latitude!

 

The alcohol thermometer shows even lower values. It seems I’m not late. Here the night is not over. The mist must be caused by the strong inversion. I know the air is extremely dry on the Altiplano in the wintertime, but here on the bottom, close to the ground probably contains much more water vapour

 

In a couple of minutes the weather station started its activity. The snow mound is where I buried the logger to protect it from the extreme cold. The sensor can measure down to -40 degrees, but the logger itself is functional only to -30

 

It was difficult. But the project is on track

 

As the sun reached the lowest parts, after only a couple of minutes became considerable warmer in the crater

 

My self-designed talisman at the bottom of Aguita Brava caldera

 

Juriques volcano (5704 m) in the background

 

Putana (5890 m), the smoking volcano (sulphur dioxide) is another major peak on the chilean border

 

The plant living at the highest altitudes (around 5200 meters)

 

At noon became surprisingly warm. Still no wind, my face is burning. As the water in the thermos is lessening I compensate the fluid loss by eating small ammounts of snow. Dehydration is a serious danger at high altitudes

 

Around 2 PM, back to the camp. The other thermos waits for me here

 

Exhausted but very content. I go to sleep early today

 

Next morning. Doesn’t slept much, but the long rest was certainly helping

 

Approaching Sol de Manana geysers

 

Nobody is here now, I can enjoy the nature’s spectacle in solitude

 

Primordial landscape. The battle between cold and heat

 

After reaching the main road, I was waiting for the trucks which are coming from the Apacheta mine. Non of them appeared, but I had luck with a jeep coming from the geysers

 

At Polques hot springs. The driver will take some tourists to the border than he will pick me up here and we will reach Uyuni in the evening

 

Local bird hunting in the shallow water

 

Laguna Chalviri (around 4400 meters elevation)

 

Yeah, here the winter UV is stronger than at home the summer version. By the way: today I’m turning 40…

 

Uturunku, the highest peak in southern Bolivia. On the way back to Uyuni

 

Two days later I take a local bus (very cheap) to cross the famous Salar de Uyuni. Close to the shore is puddly, but after that is only dry salt pan as far as you can see

 

Short stop at Incahuasi island in the middle of the salar

 

The bus has elevated bottom, probably to can handle the puddles close to the shore

 

Almost 150 km’s of pure whiteness. We are heading to Llica settlement on the other side of the salar

 

From the village (background) I will go to a lesser known but very interesting geological structure: the Hoyada Ulo meteor crater

 

I had the crater’s coordinates on my GPS, but didn’t really know which way is the best. It ‘s around 7-8 km’s in straight line. Meanwhile the landscape became “western-like”

 

I reach the high plato around sunset. Feeling some presence of indian spirits I continue the hike until dark

 

Next day at dawn I’m on the rim of the crater. Surpisingly mild +1 degree Celsius here at head level.  (I know. This picture looks like a movie screenshot from the 60′ 🙂

 

But I measure -14 degrees on the bottom. Nice inversion.

 

A smaller salar. Partially frozen now

 

That’s water there. Very salty, therefore still liquid at these temperatures

 

After the sun appears the season changes to spring. I decide to climb to the highest ledge

 

Definitely worth the effort! Salar de Coipasa, another huge salt flat can be seen in the background

 

A condor is patrolling above his empire

 

The weird “viscacha” is like a hybrid between a marmot, a squirrel and a rabbit

 

No way. I must turn back. Meanwhile became quite warm

 

When returning I found llamas on the bottom. Very peaceful animals, like bolivian people in general. No need for shepherd dogs, as the bigger predators are rare on the Altiplano. Pumas are said to live “everywhere”, but the reality is they are in small numbers for the huge territory. Meanwhile the temperature climbed to +16 degrees. Remember the -14 from the morning? That means a 30 degrees daily amplitude!

 

Before complete dark I reach Llica. It was a long day. I think the coca leaves helped me 😉

 

Rising more than 1600 meters above the flat landscape, Volcan Tunupa (5321 m) is the biggest landmark in the middle of the salt desert. On the car back to Uyuni

 

The bus is creating waves on the waters close to the shoreline

 

Two days later I start the second (and last) trip to Aguita Brava. As now the full tourist circuit is open the approache is much cheaper. I travel with two french who are heading to Chile. I think french are the most common tourists in Bolivia

 

Reaching Villa Mar settlement in the late afternoon. After sleeping in the village we continue the journey to the high plateau the next morning

 

This snow wasn’t there the other day. Certainly the wind is responsible for this change. We must turn back a little to take the smaller road

 

Before 8 AM I leave the car. It is windy and the -8 degrees feels much colder. My plan is to climb the mountain today and descend to the other side tomorrow

 

The wind intensifies, the sun has no warming effect in these circumstances. It’s ironic how similar the pictures can be while representing completely different realities

 

In the first part I felt markedly stronger than the other time but above 5100 meters the walking/ breathing became harder and harder. The last 100-200 meters was a complete struggle. I thought after 2 weeks at 3500-4000 meters I can handle these heights without any problems. But it was far from truth. The 1400-1500 meter ascent in 7 hours was too much

 

I left the unnecessary luggage on the rim of the crater. The westerly wind was very strong here, blowing straight in my face while I started the descend into the caldera

 

Oh, no… After this extreme struggle I found the weather station on the bottom fallen over. I underestimated the local weather conditions trusting the crater’s “sheltering effect”. But the gales were present even here. Even now is present! Luckily non of the instruments were damaged and I managed to collect everything. I also checked the logger’s daily statistics and found out the best day was the first when the temperature climbed from -26.6 degrees to +4 degrees Celsius

 

The steep climb on the friable volcanic debris back to the rim was somehow less strenuous than I was expecting after the former difficulties. My guess is that after the organism is over the highest part and starts descending again it recovers (partially). Therefore a new climb will be less hard as you have already visited the former height before. I understand the logic and also knew the theory, but I’m surprized because of the contrasts and because of the short time you need for these changes. After packing full my backpack again I started to descend the mountain on the otherside

 

No real altitude sickness from now on, but I was definitely exhausted when reaching this boulder where I set the same kind of camp (around 5000 meters elevation). Now the protection has real meaning as the westerly is still blowing. It was a very hard day. Time to sleep

 

Next morning I’m heading to the Dali Desert, where the main road is passing. The night was alternately windy, with some calm intervals between. It was nice full moon and in a certain time the bright disk was positioned exactly above my head. I mean vertically

 

The surreal Cerro Amarillo (5661 m)

 

The wind became even stronger while I reached the road, but the lower elevation and higher sun angle takes away from the cold. After a new bath at Polques (where I met 2 other hungarians) a jeep taked me back to Uyuni. The same reasonable price again

 

The main plaza in Uyuni. The small town is a tourist magnet. There is little to see in the settlement itself, everything is about the salar. The small center area is crowded with hostels, tourism offices and restaurants

 

And of course: souvenir shops

 

Tours and tours and tours… Sharp contrast between the small, modest brick buildings and the big, colored buses and modern jeeps

 

Many street dogs, but they are all harmless. In Bolivia the quadrupeds are surprisingly gentle

 

Pique macho, a traditional bolivian dish. Not really a delicacy, but good when hungry. Or just to tease the many scandinavian feminists  😉

 

In the same evening I’m back to La Paz. The plane took off 20 minutes…earlier. Never seen such a thing in my life. I was very surprised how easy is to travel in Bolivia. Maybe too easy?

 

Plaza Murillo, one of the main meeting places of the capital

 

Mercado a Las Brujas (Witches Market), another tourist hotspot of the center area. Beside the many colored clothes and wallets you can found here all kinds of weird things like various medicinal plants and even dried llama fetuses

 

The next day I visit the National Weather Service’s office and found out some important infos (see in part 3)

 

As tomorrow in the morning I will start my journey back to Europe I will use this day to see more of the city. Heading down to the lower elevations

 

There are many cable car lines, all colored differently

 

The richer part of the city

 

In the afternoon I climbed a precipitous hill situated in the outskirts. It was quite difficult because of the friable rocks, also uncomfortable, as many cactuses grow on the steep sides

 

I have no time for the highest peak, the relief is too fragmented from this side

 

The high Andes at sunrise from the plane. Bye lack of oxygen!

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguita Brava volcano: Mars on Earth (1/3)

Intro: The highest capital city

Bolivia is situated in the Southern Hemisphere on tropical latitudes, but it’s western part’s high elevation make the closure to the Equator no more than pure statistics. With around 3600 meters altitude in the center area, La Paz is the world’s most elevated capital city. Contrary to the usual setting, here the airport is situated well above the city itself, therefore at 4000 meters elevation the air in El Alto (spanish for “The Heights”) is even thinner. The explanation is the local topography: La Paz is sheltered in a deep canyon, below the wind-swept Altiplano (“High Plateau”) where the flatter terrain is more suitable for an airport.
If somebody came here from normal elevations he/ she certainly will feel some signs of the “mountain sickness” in just a couple of hours. This include headache, nausea, dizziness, tinglings in the limbs and shortness of breath. The last one is very obvious while doing some effort, like climbing the steeper streets of the city. As the urban agglomeration has a very complicated relief you have a lot of inclined terrain to deal with. Better take it easy in the first days. However, some people acclimatize much easier than others. It’s more a genetic thing than something related to physical fitness.
Another interesting fact regarding the local climate are the big daily thermal fluctuations. This is the most outstanding in the dry season, which here coincides with the (austral) winter months. From June to August the temperature tipically fluctuates from near freezing in the night/ morning to 15-20 degrees Celsius in the early afternoon hours. But, because of the high UV radiation the daytime temperatures felt much warmer. A 17-18 degrees Celsius in the sun here on the Altiplano is more like a 25 degrees at sea level. Really sharp contrast between the sun and shade. The sky is normally clear or partially covered with higher clouds, the possibility for any kind of precipitation is pretty low in the winter months.
Despite the lack of oxygen the streets of La Paz and the neighbouring El Alto are very crowded. From food to clothes and car parts, everybody is selling something. The traffic can be incredibly slow, but the locals are very patient and peaceful. Conflicts between the citizens are rare. Tourism is one of the main income in this poor, landlocked south-american country, so you will see lots of backpackers wandering in the center area.

View of La Paz with Illimani mountain (6439 m) in the background

 

Choosing the target

Everybody heard about the expressions “lunar”, respectively “martian landscape”. It refers to a very dry and barren place, usually a desert, where no vegetation is present and the terrain is mostly made of by bare rocks and/ or clay.  It is also known that because of the lack of an atmosphere the climate of the Moon and the Mars is very severe, fluctuating between extreme cold in the night and blistering heat in the daytime. This is mostly because of the lack of water vapour in the air, whose presence regulate/ moderate the heat transfer on Earth’s surface. However there are some places on our planet where the climatic conditions remind of these dead celestial bodies, presenting huge daily temperature fluctuations. Where are they and which parameters are responsible for the most extreme conditions on Earth?

First you need clear skies. Clouds are composed of water vapour, which keeps the heat trapped in the lower atmospheric layers. Deserts are known to have less cloudy days than any other ecosystems. Second you need high altitudes. The thinner the atmosphere, the less heat can be kept inside during the nights and more solar radiation will reach the surface during daytime. So high elevation deserts are better suited than the ones situated near sea level*. Thirdly you need high solar angle to have even greater differences between day and nightime conditions. It means high elevation tropical deserts are the best choice. And fourthly you need concave topography, because it heats more in the daytime (reradiation from the sides) and cools more in the night hours (collecting the denser, colder air like a bowl). The theory is ready, let’s check the practical availabilities.

 

How about the Altiplano? It is dry, it is very high, it is situated on tropical latitudes and there are many non-active volcanoes with well preserved, deep craters. All the four conditions matches. Reliable climatic statistics of the region are pretty scarse on the Internet. On wordclimate.com I’ve found La Quiaca weather station on the Argentina-Bolivia border (around 3400 meters elevation) to have the biggest average daily amplitude. Here in June and July the temperature fluctuates between -7 and +15 degrees. Regarding the precipitations the western part of the high plateau is even drier, so I suppose the thermal amplitudes can be even greater in the region situated around the triple border between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, known as “Puna de Atacama”.
One of the biggest astronomical observatories in the world have been built on the chilean side of the Atacama Plateau. Why? Because the region offers one of the clearest skies on Earth, year round. It is said the air here has comparable transparence with the one above the South Pole. After studying the local conditions from the weather statistics of the ALMA observatory I’ve concluded the biggest drawback of the regions climate is the wind. Air movements are mixing the layers, destroying the forming inversions in the nightime and cooling the ground in the daytime. Beside its dryness, the winter is also pretty windy on the Altiplano. So, apart from the already mentioned four, I will need also a fifth parameter: Luck.

The relief of Bolivia with the black dot on the south-west marking the location of the Aguita Brava volcano

But where exactly can be the place with the highest daily thermal amplitude? After stopping at Juriques volcano on the Chile-Bolivia border, finally I decided to choose a lesser known crater situated a little more to the north on the bolivian side. The mountain is named “Aguita Brava”. The location is marked only on good topographical maps. The barren volcano is close to 5500 meters high with a crater of around 800 meters wide and 80 meters deep. The bottom of the caldera is situated at 5320 meters elevation. Because this mountain has a somewhat less prominent topography than Juriques, which rises abruptly above the Atacama desert with little protection from the dominant, westerly winds, I presume Aguita Brava crater has better chances to produce good night-time inversions. The caldera itself is also a little more sheltered inside the volcano, with slightly lower, but still enough good sky view factor (around 0.91-0.92, according to my calculations on Google Earth).

Close-up of the caldera with the 10 meter contour lines calculated on GoogleEarth

Winter is the dry season here, it means more clear skies and greater chances to have huge daily amplitudes. Even if rare, but snowfall is possible during the colder months too. In the frigid and bone-dry conditions the snow doesn’t melt, but sublimates (transforms directly from the solid to the gas phase). Under the strong sun the white blanket wanishes rapidly, however the wind collects the snow in the sheltered areas, often blocking parts of the roads on the high plateau. Timing: second part of June.

Access to the volcano: There are only a few roads in this remote area and none of them is paved. Despite the place is almost uninhabited I found out there are some touristic circuits, which approaches my target pretty well. Around 10 km’s to the north of the crater is an attraction composed of many small geysers named “Sol de Manana”. This place is situated close to the highest part of the Uyuni-San Pedro de Atacama (Bolivia-Chile) road, and when the conditions permits (no snow blockages) has daily visitors year round. The geysers are situated above 4800 meters elevation, only 600-700 meters below my chosen mountain. Properly acclimated this means a one day hike, though with a heavy backpack can probably be quite exhausting.

Russian topographic map of the volcanic plateau on the Bolivia-Chile border (the arrow pointing to the chosen crater)

Aguita Brava is situated inside the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, a protected area with many bird species, including flamingoes. These can survive in the harsh conditions thanks to the salt lakes like the reddish Laguna Colorada, where they eat the alges. Laguna Verde is another local attraction, but this lake supports no life, because of the arsenic content. The green color is given by the copper minerals and is more intense during windy weather. Licancabur volcano rises above the surreal lake, where the highest level of UV radiation on Earth (43.3) has been measured. Though this was registered during the summer, because of the tropical latitudes the sun has a pretty high angle even during midwinter and the clear skies – thin atmosphere combination gives a solid recipe for sunburn if unprotected.

*The rumour about the Sahara to have freezing temperatures during the nights and up to 50 degrees in the daytime during a single day is a very prevalent false myth on the net and school books too, actually probably a misunderstanding. The truth is in the winter nights the temperature can go sometimes below 0 degrees and in the hottest summer afternoons can approach 50 degrees. But when there is freezing in the night, the daytime highs will probably reach around 20 degrees and when the afternoon heat is close to 50 degrees, it is unlikely to cool down below 20-25 degrees in the following night.

 

Brief summary of the research

My plane landed in El Alto on June 16 in the morning. I spent only 2 days in La Paz before taking the domestic flight to Uyuni. Because of a recent snowfall in the high Andes the usual touristic circuits were not fully open and the approach to the geysers area in the next days (my starting point) was questioned. The company that I contacted from home gave me a private driver to take me nearby the fumaroles in a single day. Though the road was partially snow covered in the last quarter, but we managed to get very close to Sol de Manana without any problems.

View of the Bolivia-Chile border from 5500 meters elevation

From this place (4850 meters elevation) I left the car and started the slow hike up the mountain (10-12 km farther to the south). I set up my camp in the afternoon on the volcanic plateau slightly below 5000 meters altitude. No tent, only bivy sack + sleeping bag, sheltered behind a boulder. I was battling mountain sickness, but the weather conditions were very good (clear skies and no wind) during the night. Feeling better I climbed the mountain in the dark. Before the sun reached the bottom of the caldera I was there and soon the mini weather station started his activity (June 20, before 8:30 AM). The coordinates of the study area are: 22.30.762′ S, 67.47.744′ W, the altitude is around 5320 meters.

The crater of Aguita Brava volcano

The logger’s sensor was set inside the helical radiation shield (donated by Barani Design Technologies) around 170 cm height, mounted on the top of a photo camera tripod. The logger itself was packed in a plastic bag and sheltered under the snow to protect it from the extreme cold in the night. The device recorded a temperature value every 5 minutes from the time it was started. I left there also an alcohol minimum thermometer to measure the lowest temperature of the entire research period (mostly for the case if the logger will have some trouble). A precision electronic device was used for instant measurements.

The weather station at the bottom of the caldera

I collected the equipment 7 days later (June 27, around 1 PM), when unfortunately I found the tripod with the devices fallen over and partially buried under the snow.
During the research period the sky was generally clear or partially covered by higher clouds, but some of the days were very windy. The first day was my lucky strike, when I had perfect conditions for strong inversions and extreme daily amplitudes. After the second day the weather became more unstable (but without new snowfall) and (concluding from the logger’s graph) probably during the following night the tripod fell down. On 27 at midday when I collected the equipment it was strong gale on the crater’s rim and surprisingly even at the bottom.

My camp in the martian landscape

The caldera was partially covered by snow during both visits, the ratio between the covered and uncovered parts was around fifty-fifty. The snow below the tripod was 20-25 cm deep, but just a few meters farther it was completely missing.

The lowest temperature registered by the logger during the one week research period was -26.6 degrees Celsius, the highest (reliable) +4 degrees Celsius, giving also the biggest daily thermal
amplitude : 30.6 degrees. Close to the snow surface I recorded -34.3 degrees with the precision electronic device (instant measurement) and below -35 with the alcohol minimum thermometer.

I spent 3 nights on the mountain, two nights on the first research trip (same camp between the geysers and the peak twice) and one night on the last one (on the other side of the crater at similar 5000 meters elevation on the volcanic plateau), visiting the caldera only two times (first in the morning of June 20 and finally in the early afternoon of June 27). The days between I spent in a hostel in Uyuni settlement and on the other side of the Salar de Uyuni, around 250-300 km’s to the north.

Vicunas (the wild ancestors of llamas) on the high plateau

There are no settlements in the area, only a mine some km’s farther on the road from the geysers. The crater is completely lifeless, but the highest plants (small yellow patches) can reach around 5200 meters elevation on the slopes of the volcano. I’ve also spotted some seagull-like birds above my camp and vicunas not far from the fumaroles.

 

The instruments used in the field

-One LogTag Tred30-7R data logger with the measuring range between -40 and +99 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of 0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One meteorological alcohol minimum thermometer, USSR, 1988, with the measuring range between -50, +40 degrees Celsius (the first dash corresponds to -52.5 degrees).
-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instruments.
-One helical solar radiation shield from Barani Design Technologies: https://www.baranidesign.com/

The Barani helical radiaton shield at 5320 meters elevation

 

To be continued…

Nariyn Golin Els: the frozen desert (3/3)

Interpretation of the logger’s graph (using TempCentre software)

 

The temperature curve of the 7 days/ 8 nights research period. The device was registering a value every 10 minutes. The time zone in the graph is UTC+2, as I uploaded the PDF file at home in Romania. You must consider another 6 hours to reach the mongolian time zone (UTC+8). So the real research period was: 2018.01.17 16:43 – 2018.01.25 10:03 

 

Post factum I found out that the effectiveness of the home-built radiation shield was not satisfactory, therefore I will analyse only the intervals when the logger wasn’t exposed to the direct sunshine. This means to skip approximately the 11 AM – 4 PM period (5 AM – 10 AM on the diagram above, because of the 6 hour time difference).

 

First night (17-18 January)

The temperature was decreasing fast in the evening between 7:13 PM – 9:23 PM, from -19.2 to -30.6 degrees Celsius. After this it was a short warming up to 10:33 PM when it reached -28.0 degrees. Around this time I was outside my tent and have seen no clouds on the sky. Also it was a complete lack of wind at the bottom of the hollow and only ocasionally some mild air movements on the rim. Between 10:33 PM – 1:53 AM the temperature have plummeted fast again and have reached -36.0 degrees, which is the lowest temperature for the entire night. From here to 4:43 AM it was an abrupt and significant warming period when the temperature have climbed to -18.6 degrees. I haven’t observed an appreciable cloud coverage or more than light air movements at my tent in this period too, however as I have vatched the sky only a few times, I can’t exclude a temporary altocumulus invasion. I have seen these types of clouds present on the sky, but were always occupying way less then one half of the total part. After 5:13 AM the temperature have decreased fast again and have reached a secondary minimum of -33.0 degrees at 9:53 AM. I was present at the bottom of the hollow from around 8:30 AM until some minutes after 9 AM and have seen the sky partially covered by cirrus and thin altocumulus clouds. On the graph there is a short warming of 1-2 degrees which coinceedes exactly with the period when I was there and have checked the logger, so this lil’ temperature change was probably caused by my influence. Shortly after 9 AM I left the depression and have returned only in 21 January in the afternoon.

Second night (18-19 January)

The graph’s curve plummeted to -33.4 degrees Celsius at 7 PM. This will remain the lowest temperature for the entire night, as from here starts a considerable and long warming period with more abrupt fluctuations, reaching a maximum of -20.0 degrees at 6:23 AM. Then the temperature decreases fast until 8:43 AM when it reaches a secondary minimum of -32.4 degrees. The following short warming increases the temperature to -26.5 degrees at 9:33 AM, but then plummets back to -31.3 degrees at 10:53 AM. Around this time reaches the sunshine first the bowl’s bottom, therefore the 10:43-10:53 period always marks the start of an abrupt temperature rising (valid for all research days).
These first 2 nights have a less regular temperature curve with some striking and considerable warming sections. As I haven’t observed any semnificative cloud coverage (outside cirrostratus) in this period, I suspect that the major cause of these abrupt night fluctuations are rather air movements/ mixing than overcasting. My residence in Erdenekhairkhan was quite close to the research camp (less than 20 km in direct line) so even in the days when I wasn’t present I could appreciate pretty well the general conditions of the sky above.

Third night (19-20 January)

In the afternoon the temperature started an abrupt drop which continues into the late evening when it reaches -39.5 degrees at 10:43 PM, the lowest temperature for the entire night. From here the curve became atypical but without semnificative changings, fluctuating between -36.5 degrees and -39.3 degrees during the entire night period.

Fourth night (20-21 January)

In the late afternoon and early evening hours the temperature decreases abruptly to -36.1 degrees at 7:13 PM. From there is a one hour intense warming to -31.3 degrees than the temperature will start to fall again and (with some smaller fluctuations) will reach a minimum of -43.8 degrees at 8:53 AM, the lowest for this night.

 Fifth night (21-22 January)

After 3 PM I reached the frost hollow’s bottom again.
In the morning of 21 the sky was partially covered by cirrus clouds and this setting will continue to define the entire day. From the afternoon to the early evening there is an abrupt drop when the temperature reaches -40.9 degrees at 7:43 PM. Then follows a significant 1.5 hours warming when it climbs to -31.3 degrees at 9:13 PM. That’s almost 10 degrees. Shortly afterwards the drop continues again and reaches the lowest temperature of this night at 5:43 AM: -46.7 degrees Celsius. From there the curve is atypical but with smaller fluctuations, remaining in the morning hours between -44.7 and -45.9 degrees. I was present at the hollow’s bottom during the morning between 8:40 and 9:45 AM and I was checking the logger just before leaving. This coincides exactly with the sharp leap on the graph when the temperature rises to -37.9 degrees at 9:43 AM. This peaky segment was definetely caused by my intervention. In the morning the sky was partially covered by cirrus and cirrostratus clouds. In the night before I haven’t observed clouds at any time when I was outside my tent. (Note: Thin cirrus clouds are not visible at night, especially without moon.) I had left the camp on this day after 11:30 AM and will return here 2 days later, in the afternoon of 24 January.

Sixth night (22-23 January)

From the afternoon there is a very abrupt and significant decreasing of the temperature up to 1:13 AM when it will reach -49.5 degrees, the night’s minimum. From here the night’s curve became atypical but without big differences, fluctuating between -46.5 and -48.4 degrees in the second part of the night, respectively the morning hours.

Seventh night (23-24 January)

After 3:43 PM the temperature starts to drop abruptly and continues to drop quite strong even in the middle and second part of the night. I consider this night curve the closest to the ideal one between all 8 cases. At the same time it had also reached the absolute lowest temperature of the entire research period: -53.0 degrees at 8:33 AM. Outside 21 January it is the single day when the minimum temperature was registered in the dawn period, when a night minimum normally is expected to occur.

 

The lowest point of the temperature curve. Add +6 hours to obtain the correct local time: 8:33 AM

Eighth (last) night (24-25 January)

This day was the clearest and also the calmest between all eight days, therefore the temperature curves are the most representative for a frost hollow in ideal conditions. I have not seen any clouds on the sky during the entire day, not even thin cirruses. The night was full of stars, without any air movement. The sharp temperature drop what started in the afternoon continued until the first part of the night when at 1:53 AM have reached the night’s minimum, -50.3 degrees. From here there will be very small changes during the remaining part of the night and the following morning hours. This part of the graph is close to an isotherm. As the highest registered value between 12 AM and 10 AM was -48.9 degrees, the 10 hour amplitude is only 1.4 degrees.
At dawn, when I visited the hollow for the last time, there were some cirrus clouds on the sky. I was present in the depression approximately between 8:45 AM and 10:05 AM. The very last measurement of the logger was influenced certainly by my intervention as I have checked the logger before stopping the entire research activity, so this -42.7 degrees can be excluded from the graph. According to the logger the lowest air temperature what I have personally experienced is -49.8 degrees and it was happening at 9:03 AM, 9:13 AM and 9:33 AM during this last research day.

 

 General conclusions

– The formation of the inversion layer starts just after the place gets into shade and evolves extremely fast in the first 2-3 hours, than the procedure slows down considerably.
– Both the formation and the destruction of the inversion layer takes place in a very short time.
– The formed inversion layer can be easily destroyed during the evening/ night by temporary clouding or mild wind.
– Only 3 out of the 8 night minimums were recorded after 2 AM (but the absolute lowest one is between these 3).
– The temperature decrease is the strongest between 4 PM – 5 PM.
– The temperature increase is the strongest between 11 AM – 12 AM.
– The cooling period has a much longer curve than the warming period, even so the first section of the cooling period’s curve is the same (or more) steep than the first part of the warming period’s curve.

 

Comparing my logger’s results with the lowest temperatures measured in Mongolia and the World during the same period

At the weather forecast center in Ulaanbaatar I found out that the coldest temperature in this winter in entire Mongolia was measured in 24 January at Tsetsen Uul and it’s -53.2 degrees Celsius. This value is almost the same with my logger’s absolute minimum (-53.0 degrees) which was registered in the same day. Outside Erdenekhairkhan, Tsetsen Uul is the closest station to my research camp (around 55 km’s in straight line) and it’s also situated at a similar elevation. The snow cover’s thickness during this period was 16 cm there, which is also very similar with the snow conditions at the frost hollow’s bottom, what I approximated to be around 15 cm. Because of it’s slightly convex topography, Erdenekhairkhan reached only -35 degrees on this coldest day. The next lowest temperature is -51.8 degrees, recorded at Bayantes (Gandan Huryee station) three days later in 27 January (the minimum on 24 was -51.7 degrees). Tes from the famous Uvs lake’s basin and Tosontsengel from Zavkhan aimag reached -50 degrees, Otgon and Zuungobi around -48 degrees.

 

The weather forecast center in Ulaanbaatar. My guide helped me to meet the local meteorologists at my arrival and also after I finished the research. The personnel was helpful and interested in my study. 

Actually (according to the statistics found on Ogimet) there is only a single station in the entire world, which recorded a lower minimum temperature in 24 January than Tsetsen Uul and my frost hollow. It’s Toko from southern Yakutia with -53.4 degrees Celsius, a very subtle difference. The next closest is Summit station from the middle of Greenland’s ice sheet with -52.2 degrees. Verkhoyansk recorded -43.4 degrees on this day, Ojmjakon even less as the weather was snowy.

 

The minimum temperatures of 24 January in Eastern Asia (source: Ogimet). The two -53’s are Tsetsen Uul (Mongolia) and Toko (Yakutia/ Russia), the -52 is Gandan Huryee (Mongolia)

 

Comparing the measurements of the 3 instruments

During my visits to the frost hollow’s bottom I made some instant temperature measurements with the precision electronic device and also checked the minimum thermometer’s index and alcohol column (keeping both around the same height with the logger). I made some pictures of these measurements which I can compare with the logger’s recordings at the closest time marks.

In 18 January in the morning the minimum thermometer’s index was stopped at -38.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile the logger have registered only -36.0 degrees. This will remain the biggest difference between the two devices until the end of the research. As in the first night the loggers mounting permitted more contact between the device and the shield’s interior, I think the difference was intensified by too much isolation on the logger’s side. Therefore I changed the loggers positioning inside the mounting the next day to have the least possible contact between the device and the surrounding material. I also raised a little the uppermost part of the shield to enhance the ventilation.
I consider this change have altered a little the daily temperature recordings as the logger’s uppermost part received some sunshine during certain parts of the day. I made this sacrifice because the night minimum’s accuracy was my first priority.

In 22 January in the morning I found the minimum thermometer’s index stopped at -47.3 degrees Celsius, while the logger registered a night minimum of -46.7 degrees. The difference is much smaller than the previous time (0.6 degrees vs 2.5 degrees), so I consider the changing in the mounting an useful intervention. In this morning I have a picture with my electronic device showing -46.4 degrees at 8:58 AM. The two measurements of the logger taken the closest to this minute are -45.5 and -45.6 degrees. That’s around one degree difference.

 

The lowest value recorded by the logger in the morning of 24 January

In 25 January in the morning I found the minimum thermometer’s index stopped at -52.2 degrees Celsius, while the logger registered a minimum of -50.3 degrees. This is again a bigger difference (1.9 degrees) between the two and it can’t be caused by the mounting. From this morning I have pictures of the electronic device showing -50.7  and -50.5 degrees at 9:00 AM, respectively 9:07 AM. Meanwhile the logger recorded -49.5 and -49.8 degrees Celsius. That’s again the same one degree difference. During this time the minimum thermometer’s alcohol column was showing between -51.5 and -52.0 degrees. This is another one degree difference in the opposite direction of the precision device’s measurement. As this more than one degree difference between the two devices remained constant after the last research day (the alcohol thermometer shows 1-1.5 degrees lower values even at room temperature), I consider the minimum thermometer lost his previous accuracy, when the two instruments had the difference around or less than half degree.

As the digital precision device is the most accurate between the 3 instruments (+-0.1 degrees), I will try to approximate the real absolute minimum of the 8 day research period. Since the electronic device was always measuring around one degree lower temperatures than the logger, in my opinion this value is around -54 degrees Celsius, exceeding even the coldest temperature registered at a mongolian weather station (Tsetsen Uul) in this winter. This corrected value also exceeds the coldest temperature recorded in the entire world in 24 January 2018 (Toko, Russia: -53.4 degrees Celsius) and approaches the absolute lowest temperature measured in Mongolia by around one and a half degrees (the -55.6 degrees Celsius recorded at Zuungobi).

Definitely a succesfull journey and a productive research.

 

 

 

 

 

Nariyn Golin Els: the frozen desert (2/3)

Journey photo album

The Government Palace on the Chinggis Square, Ulaanbaatar

 

The statue of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire

 

Crowded traffic and heavy smog in the city center

 

The statue of a famous local person in front of a hotel

 

My hotel room in UB with the radiation shield mounted on the tripod

 

Me and my guide at Chinggis Khaan International Airport

 

Soon the plane will depart to Zavkhan aimag

 

Arriving at Donoi airport, Uliastai

 

Meeting the driver. As he doesn’t speak any foreign language, my modest mongolian knowledge will be the main communication method in Zavkhan aimag. Fortunately my contact person from the tourism company purchased a local SIM card for me to can call him if necessary. 

 

On the way to Erdenekhairkhan. Not a single settlement on the 80 km dirt road. And only a few cars. 

 

Big sheep herd near the road

 

Approaching the driver’s village

 

Our street

 

The driver fires up the oven in his yurt

 

Meeting the mayor at his home

 

We start the trip to the desert, but soon the car is blocked in the snow

 

Reaching the sandy area

 

Following the single track in the waste

 

Visiting a nomad family (yes, they have satellite dish)

 

From here I will continue by foot

 

Desert people, real survivors

 

The view from the top of a higher dune towards the research place

 

Reaching the rim of the chosen depression

 

I put up my tent on the lowest portion of the rim

 

The first sight to the bottom of the hollow (around 4 PM). The sides are much steeper than I was expecting, above 30 degrees in many parts. Became pretty windy here

 

Installing the tripod with the data logger inside the radiation shield

 

The minimum thermometer on the top of the shield (now around -19 degrees Celsius)

 

The sun still shines outside the bowl

 

In the late evening I checked the instruments and found the minimum thermometer’s index blocked. Problem solved, around -34 degrees after 11 PM

 

The result of the first night: -38.5 degrees Celsius

 

Around 10 AM the hollow is still in full shade. It’s time to leave the camp

 

A group of horses in the barren landscape

 

Magnificent view from the top of a higher dune

 

The car is coming after me

 

Next day I go to a hike to the Mukhart river’s source, one of the main eyemarks of the region

 

Approaching the huge dam-like sand structure. Strong windchill here, otherwise not below -25 Celsius

 

The Mukhart oasis from the top of the huge horseshoe  (almost 200 meters high). It’s like an enclosed river delta

 

A lil’ rest and snack is welkomed as the wind weakens

 

At the bottom of the crescent shaped sand mountain. The water came out from the sands from all sides. Pleasantly warm in the full sunshine of the early afternoon

 

The water looks dirty brown because of the sandy bed. Nice ripply surface otherwise                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
Deers on the top of a smaller hill. I was surprized to see these animals in the desert                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Many yaks are grazing on the sunny side. The river attracks the animals as it is one of the few sources of water here, outside the snow                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
Back to the car. Today the sky was completely clear
On the way back to the village                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
The weather station of Erdenekhairkhan at sunset

 

The next day I visit another hollow, very similar in shape and size with the chosen one, but this one is closer to the track/ village and has lesser snow. Also it’s situated at lower elevation (around 1700 meters at the bottom)

 

The source of the Nariyn river is also close to the track. Its geomorphology is similar to Mukhart’s, but at a smaller scale (around quarter size)

 

Powdery frost covers the prickles of the desert shrub

 

Back to the ger (local name for yurt). The driver is preparing fish for dinner

 

Oh, yeah! The forecast for Tsetsen Uul looks excellent. -50 degrees soon!

 

The next day we are going again to the dunefield to approach my research area. I will spend another night in my tent. I guess it will be much colder this time                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Isolated yurt near the desert track. Two black guardian dogs followed me awhile

 

An unexpected encounter with a nomad herdsman not far from my camp. He visited my tent and was very curious about everything. Including vodka

 

Hat change and we are the best friends. Just kidding. I want back my favorite teal cap

 

Okey, the mini weather station looks untouched. Let’s check the logger’s minimum

 

A decent value. I’m pretty sure the following night will be even more colder. But now, in the unperturbed afternoon sunshine the weather is pleasantly warm

 

Yep, that’s my lordship. Something like the biblical Canaan. However this one doesn’t produces fruits but cold…

 

This quadruped appeared from nowhere. And disappeared the same way. He must be from the closest yurt, around 2 km’s from my camp. Maybe my friend’s dog (?)

 

While I go round the depression the shade reached the bottom

 

Already -40 and it’s still sunshine outside the bowl 

 

A long, cold night is waiting for me. Even if I will not sleep too much, the sustained rest will help the organism to regenerate

 

Still dark. I slept little and often as usual in similar conditions. Outside the sky was constantly full of stars. Ironically, my nose is not frostbitten but burned, as now I am UV sensitive because of a longer antibiotic treatment. Nevertheless, the “cryotherapy” probably doesn’t promoted the healing…

 

Not particularly warm…

 

…but I have a nice menu

 

Outside is a little chillier. But I am on the rim. What about the hollow’s bottom?

 

At dawn I descended to the depression to check the instruments

 

Oh, yeah! That’s certainly not for barefoot walking

 

-47.3 on the alcohol thermometer. That’s a good minus, Minusz!

 

Okey, the logger recorded a similar minimum. January 22 is the coldest day until now

 

I’m satisfied with the results. It’s time to leave the camp again. But the logger still have 3 days to register

 

Big herd of sheeps not far from my research place

 

Who said horses are sensitive? These animals are built for the cold

 

Crossing a higher rocky top on the way back. The weather is pleasant again. Huge difference between the morning and the early afternoon hours 

 

A portion of the Khangai Mountains behind the dunes 

 

Yeah, it’s really warm now. And I have plenty of time. And space

 

The driver and his friend are coming after me. The baby doesn’t really like the expedition…

 

In the next morning: the driver’s daughter is ready for school 

 

Horse statue in Erdenekhairkhan’s centre. The animal is venerated in the country. As they say: “A mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
A very common bird in the settlement and its surroundings

 

The village seen from a small hilltop with Altan Khairkhan (Golden Holy Mountain) in the background

 

An old resident peacefully smokes on the street

 

The buddhist monastery of the settlement

 

My “colleague”, the weatherwoman checks the air temperature in the instrument shelter. The village has a somewhat milder climate because it’s not situated in a valley or basin bottom. When at Tsetsen Uul and Tosontsengel the temperature plummets below -40 degrees, at Erdenekhairkhan is only around -20, -25. But now is colder. Tsetsen Uul recorded -51.6 degrees Celsius this night, the coldest temperature in Mongolia this winter 

 

The “ovoo”, a mongolian sacred cairn is very common on higher elevations (mountain tops and passes) and are used by the locals as altars or shrines 

 

The roof of the yurt is a significant part of the construction as it represents the sky, joining the earthly and the spiritual realms

 

In the coldest morning we start the last trip to the desert

 

We try to approach the camp more this time as tomorrow we need to go back to Uliastai. However this portion is too difficult, the driver will not risk. Final distance to the research area, as the crow flies: 6 km

 

Like the horses, the camels are also extremely well prepared to survive in the coldest conditions. These desert giants are very calm and peaceful, moving away only when you are really close to them. And they are constantly watching you, slowly turning their heads while walking. A lil’ weird

 

Yeah, today it’s colder. But the full sunshine and complete calm of the early afternoon hours tricks the senses

 

The tent is still intact. Let’s check the tripod

 

Well, well. The top part looks a lil’ moved. Maybe my nomad friend was also curious? Fortunately the logger is still there, recording 

 

Yesss! This is exceptional: -53 degrees Celsius! Only 2.6 degrees less than the absolute record of the country measured in Zuungobi in the 70’s 

 

The last sunrays of the day saying goodbye to the shield. It’s only 4 PM

 

I climb to the top of the rim. Meanwhile the shade incorporated the bottom of the hollow. The sky is completely clear, the air moveless. Perfect conditions

 

-46 degrees before 6 PM. This part of the day is the most fascinating. After the sun disappears, the temperature plummets extremely fast

 

Outside the bowl the sun is still shining 

 

From the rim, near my tent, I can watch the sunset

 

Still not alone

 

Bright orange on the sun’s side 

 

Pastel magenta on the opposite part

 

Near surface temperature at my camp in the last reseach day (at dawn)

 

The night was completely clear and calm. At the bottom must be extremely cold 

 

That’s right!  My precision electronic device have never seen such a low value                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
Still below -50 at head level too. As I was warmed up well from the strategic morning jogging beside my tent, I wasn’t suffering from the extreme cold of the depression’s bottom. Actually, I consider a -30 with moderate wind more unpleasant and dangerous for the exposed skin than a windless -50

 

The alcohol thermometer almost “died” . The index is stopped between the last two dashes of the scale: -52.2 degrees Celsius

 

As the logger shows only the absolute minimum for the entire 7 days + 8 nights period, I can’t check the value for today. The previous -53.0 remains the lowest temperature of the research.  The electronic precision device was constantly indicating between -50 and -51 degrees in this morning

 

While I packed my camping equipment the sun reached the bottom of the cauldron. After 11 AM I say goodbye to my frost hollow 

 

You again…

 

The driver is looking after me from the top of a dune

 

Last time on the sandy track. That short, steep part was difficult

 

On the way to Uliastai

 

Otgontenger (on the left), the highest peak of the Khangai Mountains (4008 m). Because of a recent tragic accident the ascent of the mountain is forbidden. Maybe another time…

 

Uliastai at sunset from a small hilltop. I will spend the night at a hotel in the town. Hopefully we can found a quiet one

 

An angry deity tries to scare me. These mitological entities are originating from the tibetan folclore 

 

Bye Zavkhan aimag! It was my pleasure 

 

Don’t worry. This guy is very contented. He just needs some sleep. And face cream

 

Otgontenger from the plane

 

Next day in the capital I visit the Gandantegchinlen monastery 

 

The 26.5 meter high standing Buddha is known as the tallest indoor statue in the world 

 

You can appreciate the sizes more from this picture

 

The Blue Sky Tower, one of Ulaanbaatar’s most emblematic buildings

 

Last dinner in Mongolia. Tomorrow I will fly back to Europe. I don’t know if the winter has finally arrived there. What I know is that mine is over.

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nariyn Golin Els: the frozen desert (1/3)

Intro:  The coldest capital city

Mongolia is well known as one of the coldest countries in the world and his capital city, Ulaanbaatar is undoubtedly the coldest one. With a January average below -20 degrees Celsius and occasionaly reaching below -40, this place is not for the weaklings. Beside the severe climate the city is enshrouded in heavy smog, making the breathing even more difficult. The pollution is caused by the phenomenon known as “thermal inversion”, when the dense cold air of the wintertime is sinking to the bottom of the valleys and basins keeping the smoke and other dry particles in the lowest atmospheric layers. The smog is the strongest in the late night and early morning hours when the cooling is the most intensive. This can cause many problems including road accidents and flight delays. Because of these complications there are plans to move soon the capital’s airport to a new place that is more than 50 km’s from the city. The actual “Chinggis Khaan” (named after the founder of the Mongolian Empire) airport is situated about 15 km’s from the center and because of its location in a flatter and more open area is even colder than Ulaanbaatar itself. The temperature difference between the two on an average winter morning is around 5-6 degrees Celsius. In the day of my arrival it was a “mild” -25. But we aren’t there yet.

 

Ice sculptures in the Sukhbaatar square, Ulaanbaatar

 

Choosing the target

I have a big passion for deserts. But also for the cold. How about the coldest desert? I’ll try to found it.
With an annual average below -50 degrees Celsius and reaching below -80 degrees in the toughest winter days, the interior of Antarctica is unequivocally the coldest place on Earth. It can be considered a desert if your classification is based only on the precipitation ammount which is extremely low there. But if your criterions are more complex and it includes also the landscape component, then you must switch your search to the Northern Hemisphere. Yakutia in Eastern Siberia is the coldest region in the boreal half (also has the coldest permanently inhabited places), but there is only taiga and tundra zone, no deserts. That’s why most sources come up with the Gobi as that one is the biggest and most known example of what a cold desert is. But it’s not the coldest one. The Gobi is situated in the southernmost part of Mongolia (also continues more to the south in neighboring China) but there are some smaller deserts in the north-western part of the country where the winter averages are much lower than in the famous stony desert.

The mean January temperatures in the mongolian Gobi are mainly between -12 and -20 degrees Celsius (Dalanzadgad -15, Sainshand -18 degrees) and in the chinese part mostly between -8 and -15 degrees (Dunhuang -8, Ejin Qi -11 degrees). Pretty low for sure, but not even close to the bone chilling -33 degrees of Ulaangom in Uvs aimag* (local administrative division, similar to province or county). The town is situated in the Uvs Lake’s basin, known as one of the coldest places in Central Asia, not far from the lesser-known Boorog Deliyn Els sandy desert. In this wasteland is a village named “Zuungobi”, which is the place where the lowest temperature in entire Mongolia was measured: -55.6 degrees Celsius. Yeah, that’s cold. And it’s a desert.

 

 

From October to April the land of Genghis Khan is affected by the Siberian Anticyclone, a huge collection of cold and dry air masses that is responsible for both the highest atmospheric pressures and the lowest temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. Actually the center of the Siberian High in midwinter is in north-western Mongolia, consequently here was recorded the world’s highest barometric pressure. Most Internet sources are claiming that Tosontsengel of Zavkhan aimag holds the title with 1085.7 mb (millibars), but there is a place in the western part of the same aimag which (according to the statistics found on Ogimet) have reached even much higher values, like 1098.7 mb in the morning of 9 March 2016. This occured during an unusually strong cold snap when the small village experienced also the lowest temperature in the country for this month, a staggering -54 degrees Celsius. Tsetsen Uul, the peculiar settlement is located in a high altitude basin in the western part of the Khangai Mountains, not far from the limit of the sandy area, which extends here from the Great Lakes Basin, along the Hungui river and its (mainly former) tributaries. In some parts the sand dunes are reaching 2200-2400 metres in elevation, therefore it can be considered the highest desert in Mongolia. Because this region receives a little more rainfall and has cooler summer climate than the western, lower elevations, in some parts you can see pine trees between the sands. This high altitude sandy area raised my attention and I was starting to speculate if it can be the coldest place in the country, respectively the coldest desert in the world.

Because of the strong thermal inversion caused by the anticyclone, as a general rule, in the mongolian winters the lowest places are the coldest, therefore the Uvs Lake’s basin, which is one of the lowest places in the country (below 800 metres at the bottom), is also one of the coldest places. But the reality is a little more complex as Tosontsengel, Tsetsen Uul and Otgon settlements are all situated at much higher elevations (1700-2150 meters) and despite of this they can cool down to similar or often to even lower values than the formerly mentioned region. The explanation is that all three are situated in valley bottoms, which are collecting the sinking cold air from the nearby mountains. Actually the relative position what matters here, not the altitude itself. What’s more, if sufficiently flat and/ or enclosed, the highest basins can be the coldest ones, as in thinner air the nocturnal heat loss is more powerful. The Uvs Lake’s area is so cold because it’s a deep endorheic hollow, from where the collected cold air can’t escape in any direction. If the same topography could exist at higher elevations it could produce even lower temperatures.

 

The location of the selected research place (red dot) on the map of Mongolia
 Important to mention is that the snow cover also plays a major role in the cooling potential of any given place as the fresh snow blanket isolates the ground and radiates most of the sunrays back into space. However, above 20 cm thickness there is no considerable enhancement regarding this effect. In Mongolia the winter snow coverage is highly variable. Some places like the Uvs Nuur Basin is always blanketed by snow but others only in certain years. The high altitude sandy area usually has snow cover but its thickness is changing from year to year. This season the coverage in the country is well above the average. It means the Siberian High is strong and severe cold snaps are likely to take place. The mongols have a term for the tough winter conditions, they called it “dzud”. For them (especially for the herders) it has an unambiguously bad meaning as it’s related to livestock losses. If the snow is deeper the animals are struggling to found enough food and the starvation in the freezing conditions will decimate them. It means my luck is their bad luck? Sort of…

 

Satellite image of the high altitude desert of Zavkhan aimag (the small red contour is my chosen hollow) with the approximate desert track (red curve)

In sandy areas, between the dunes are many enclosed, concave relief forms of different sizes, ranging from 1-2 to more than 50 meters deep. With the help of GoogleEarth I identified some huge hollows on the surface of the high elevation desert mentioned before. Subsequently I obtained a digital elevation model (DEM) of the area which also confirmed that some of these negative shapes are around 50-60 meters deep. The endorheic depth is the altitude difference between the bottom and the “outflow point” (the lowest elevation on the rim). The topographical aspect is exactly the same as in the case of the karstic depressions (dolines and uvalas) which are known to produce extremely low temperatures during clear and calm winter nights, therefore often referred to as “frost hollows”.

 

Digital elevation model of the Nariyn Golin Els desert (the arrow indicates the location of the small basin)

Between the deeper concavities noticed on the desertic plateau I picked out one, whose parameters (the combination of elevation and depth) appeared to be the most convenient for my research. The hollow has an endorheic depth of around 50 meters and it’s bottom is situated about 1960 meters above sea level. It has a roughly circular shape with a diameter around 1 km. According to my calculations the average slope of the depression is around 11 degrees. There is a term named “sky view factor” which consider the average slope as the major parameter responsible for the cooling potential of a given topographical place. Concave shapes are important for cooling because they are collecting the sinking cold air and also represents protection from the mixing effect of the wind, but if the slopes are too steep than the nocturnal heat loss will be significantly lessened by reradiation from the sides. Ideal is somewhere in between, mostly like a plate shape: concave but adequately open. By the way, eleven degrees is quite good.

 

Closeup of the hollow with the level lines (1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 meters) calculated on GoogleEarth

The small negative shape appears on my detailed soviet miliary topographic map but without exact elevation data or a name for this particular place. The desert which encompasses also my target zone is named “Nariyn Golin Els” (meaning “the sands of the Nariyn river”). No settlements and no roads are present in the immediate surroundings. The closest village is Erdenekhairkhan, situated to the south-west about 19 km in straight line. There is a dirt road which approaches more my target (about 10 km’s), reaching the southern limit of the dune field. I think that’s sufficiently close to can handle it by foot with a heavy backpack. GoogleEarth shows that the surface is sandy with some sparse vegetation (I guess shrubs), probably something like the Kalahari or the australian deserts, but the color of the dunes is lighter not reddish.

 

Russian topographic map of the desert plateau north of Erdenekhairkhan (the arrow pointing to the unnamed depression)

My small basin is part of the “Ulaagchiin Khar Nuur Bioreserve”, a protected area of high altitude sands, mountains and pristine lakes. Khar Lake, Mukhart river and Senjit Khad are the main eyemarks of the reserve, but I’m pretty sure that in the wintertime there are no touristic (if any) activities. We’ll see.

 

Brief summary of the research

I arrived in Mongolia in the morning of 15 January by the Budapest-Ulaanbaatar (through Moscow) international flight. From the mongolian capital I used domestic flight to Zavkhan aimag’s capital, Uliastai. At the airport a private driver was waiting for me, who was contacted by a tourism company from Ulaanbaatar. Previously this company supported me to obtain the visa at the mongolian consulate in Budapest and helped to arrange the transports and accomodations in the country during the entire journey. The private driver is a japanese 4wd car owner and takes me to his home in Erdenekhairkhan (around 110 km’s), which is the closest settlement to my targeted zone. From his village we approached the reseach area with the jeep, following a sandy and quite difficult track through the Nariyn Golin Els desert (around 20 km). We managed to get close to the target around 8 km’s in straight line. From this point I reached the chosen place alone by foot along the dune field, carrying the camping equipment and the meteorological devices in a backpack.

 

One of the few people who are living in this desert in the wintertime

The area is remote, but still have some human activity in the wintertime. I saw 3 yurts and more herds of sheeps and goats along my hikes. Some horses and camels are grazing unsupervised on the dunes. The few people who are living here are moving on horseback and are doing daily circuits with their herds, the yurts are not moved in the cold season. Despite its isolation and severe climate, the desert’s surface was full with animal trails.

 

The frost hollow from the north-western rim

I raised my tent some hundreds of meters west from the actual research place, on the lowest part of the selected hollow’s rim, around 2007 meters above sea level. The tripod with the data logger inside the home-built radiation shield was set on the lowest portion of the frost hollow, about 1942 meters above sea level (according to the GPS). It means the depression’s endorheic depth is around 65 meters (16 meters deeper than according to GoogleEarth). The low-point’s exact coordinates are: 48.15.460′ N, 95.52.914′ E. The logger’s elevation above the surface was around 160 cm’s. This device was constantly registering the temperature from the afternoon of 17 January until the morning of 25 January. On the days when I was present in the region (three nights) I have set the minimum alcohol thermometer on the top of the radiation shield to measure the night’s lowest temperature. The precision electronic device was used to take instantaneous measurements of the air (holding the device in hand at head level while moving) and near the surface (leaving the instrument on the snow).

 

My tent at the “outflow point” of the depression

Outside a smaller exposed side from where the snow was partially missing, the depression was snow covered, with around 15 cm of snow at the bottom. The weather was constantly good, mostly clear or partially covered by cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, seldom with transitory altocumulus appearances. The wind was rare and mild, at the bottom mostly completely missing.
The research period was encompassing eight consecutive nights. From this I spent three nights in my tent, the remaining ones in my drivers yurt in Erdenekhairkhan.

 

The tripod with the instruments at the bottom of the bowl

 

The devices used in the field

-One Alpha TD80 data logger from Tempsen with the measuring range between -80, +70 degrees, an accuracy of +-0.5 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One Greisinger GMH 2710-T digital precision thermometer with the measuring range between -199.9, +200 degrees Celsius, an accuracy of +-0.1 degrees Celsius and a resolution of 0.1 degrees Celsius.
-One meteorological alcohol minimum thermometer, USSR, 1988, with the measuring range between -50, +40 degrees Celsius (the first dash corresponds to -52.5 degrees).
-One photo camera tripod serving as the support for the instruments.
-One home-made radiation shield constituted of superimposed bowls made of polystyrene, covered with aluminum foil.

 

The precision device doing his job

 

To be continued…