Fox in the field: Following the tracks of climate triggers in Mongolia

Fox in the field: Following the tracks of climate triggers in Mongolia

By Stephanie Fox, August 20, 2019 –

I should probably explain that headline.

In mid-July, I left my Illinois home and headed to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. That’s where I met up with two scientists, a high school teacher and a rising university freshman. Together we boarded a plane to Beijing, China, then Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, situated between China and Russia.

The team of scientists, headed by climatologist Aaron Putnam, are tracking the retreat of glaciers from the past ice age for clues to reveal climate triggers that human-forced climate change may be pushing much harder now.

Mongolia is where our crew of travelers conducted this incredible climate research, and I’ll be reporting on the work from the field: Fox in the Field.


So, let me introduce everyone because, let’s be honest, they’re the reason I’m here.

This whole expedition started with Aaron Putnam, assistant professor with the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences. A few years back, Aaron drafted a National Science Foundation grant proposal. It explained the research he and the team I’m with will be doing on this trip. NSF gave the proposal good reviews but didn’t fund it on that first round.

That didn’t stop Aaron. Instead, he wrote a proposal to the Comer Family Foundation who gave him enough funding to cover his first Mongolian trip in 2014 with Ph.D. candidate Peter Strand. They helped perfect a time machine for clocking elements in rock that could tell them when the rocks became ice-free. Then Aaron wrote a second proposal to the NSF. Again, it was rejected, not an unusual pattern for NSF funding. The Comer Family Foundation agreed to support another year of research,  giving Aaron more data, and then NSF funding for a multi-year research program came through.

Speaking of the Comer Family Foundation, I want to mention an exceptionally important individual – Stephanie Comer. She is a member of the Comer family, carrying on the legacy of her father Gary Comer who started the foundation.  Not only does the Comer Family Foundation grant young scientists across the country seed money to launch their research, but it is also responsible for creating the Comer Education Campus on Chicago’s South Side. The campus includes the Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, Gary Comer Middle and UTMOSTU. The foundation also has a hand in health care by supporting harm reduction-centered syringe access programs. Stephanie Comer, her son and his friend joined us in Mongolia.

Aaron’s NSF funding covers a high school teacher and a recent high school graduate. I mentioned that the Comer Family Foundation is responsible for Gary Comer College Prep, a Noble Network charter high school located in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Jess Stevens (an environmental science teacher at the high school) has gone on all of these trips with Aaron and Peter since 2016. Each time she brings along one of her students. This year that student is Patricia Joyner. She just graduated from Gary Comer College Prep, she will be studying with Aaron and Peter at the University of Maine starting this fall as a science major and as Aaron’s undergraduate researcher.

When we got to Ulaanbaatar we met the other half of our team. Boldoo Baatar, Baysaa Todmandakh and Bagi Gurkhlaajar are our drivers and guides. Bagi’s long-time friendship with the man who runs the Altai National Parks is actually the reason Aaron and Peter gained permits to collect glacial samples. Baldoo’s wife Otgoo Nyamdaa and Baysaa are our cooks. Tumur Batbold – Boldoo and Otgoo’s son and a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology along with his classmate Oraza Seribol – are the Mongolian student participants, counterparts of Patricia.

Everyone except for Oraza gathered in Ulaanbaatar for two days where we picked up supplies from a grocery store whose wide range of items reminded us of a Mongolian version of Costco and a generator. We got the generator from an outdoor market where items are sold cheaper than in stores.

From there, we piled into three cars and made the three-day journey to Ulgii, a smaller city in Western Mongolia. That’s where we picked up Oroza.

Next stop: the Altai Mountains to set up camp and start collecting samples.

Now for the science!

So, here’s where things get interesting. In broad terms, Peter’s Ph.D. research involves constructing past glacial chronologies and climate variability using beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating techniques.

What does that mean?

The supernovas in our galaxy are stars dying in an explosion of light and energy. This explosion breaks apart the highly energetic atomic nucleus (the small dense, region at the center of an atom containing positively charged protons and neutrons that have no charge) and hurls these particles through space at near light speed. They’re called cosmogenic rays or, more commonly, cosmic rays.

Due to an interaction with our sun’s magnetic pull, the cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere in a shower of mostly protons.

These protons, colliding with the atmosphere, rain down streams of secondary particles that interact with the quartz mineral found in rocks, a recipe of one-part silicon and two-parts oxygen. As the particles interact with the quartz, they break apart the silicon and oxygen and leave behind beryllium-10.

And that’s the only way beryllium-10 can be formed – the time machine in the rock. The longer the rock has been exposed to the atmosphere – free of glacial ice – the higher the concentration of beryllium-10, a way to clock the time since the glaciers moved on. That’s what makes what Aaron and Peter are working on so precise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite glaciers appearing to be a solid chunk of ice and snow, they are constantly flowing downward as they grow during ice ages. This means that anything that gets caught in a glacier, gets churned in this conveyor belt until the glaciers begins to recede and tosses aside its debris. And this can happen to rocks, tossed from the glaciers like so many pebbles. While trapped, the glacier not only smooths the rock, but also resets it, decaying all the beryllium-10 back into silicon and oxygen.

Now there are these rocks piling up at the edge of the glacier, with these very distinct characteristics. We call that a moraine. And they once again have access to the secondary particles streaming down from the interaction between cosmic rays and Earth’s atmosphere.

So, beryllium-10 starts forming.

In other words, if a sample is taken that reveals the rock’s quartz to contain 7.6 beryllium-10 atoms, we know that the rock has been exposed to protons for 2 years. The glacier likely receded from the rock only two years before.

Of course, this is just an example, and testing for beryllium-10 is no trivial task, but that gives you an idea of how this all works. The moraine rocks Peter and Aaron are clocking started collecting beryllium-10 when the ice receded thousands of years ago.

So, the next couple of weeks we will be hiking into the Altai Mountain, taking moraine samples and returning them to the United States, where Aaron and Peter will use the information gathered to determine the retreat of glaciers.

Peter will use the data collected in Mongolia, as well as at his other field site in Eastern Tibet to compare the retreat of the glaciers around the world. This will not only reveal how far the glaciers have receded, but also give us an idea of how quickly.

And that’s important. The speed of receding glaciers in the past compared to the present gives us clues about how hard we are pushing climate change with human fossil fuel emissions.

A Journal of Our Research Trip


I met Aaron, Peter, Jess and Patricia at O’Hare International Airport, where we made the 24-hour journey from Chicago to Beijing, China, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Preparation for the trip came in the form of a laundry list of items to acquire (such as a headlamp, sleeping mat, nail clippers and more), a practice hike at Swallow Cliff Woods near North Palos Township, and about a dozen vaccines (Bubonic Plague and rabies are both highly prevalent in Mongolia).

Because of the time change we arrive in Mongolia two days later.


Our Mongolian guides greeted us at Ulaanbaatar Airport. Aaron, Peter and Jess walked into the open arms of Boldoo Baatar, Bagi Gurkhlaajar and Tumur Batold. When Aaron met the Mongols on his first trip to Mongolia in 2014, they were hired helpto drive his crew to their field site, prepare food and keep them safe. Three trips and 5 years later, they’ve become family.

Once picked up, we made the 45-minute drive to our hotel. When we got there, I was handed what looked to be a military dog tag. Confused, I asked Boldoo what to do with it, to which he responded with a single word: “Key.”

When I got to my room, I passed out immediately. After traveling for so many hours—always in sunlight—I was ready to crash.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:00 a.m. and I was up again around 7 a.m. Before our scheduled 9 a.m. breakfast I showered and organized my things.

Breakfast was served in a small coffee shop attached to our hotel. A waiter brought everyone the same thing: toast, sliced tomatoes, eggs, ham and a generous squirt of mustard. I looked down at my plate and quietly pulled out one of my MREs – Meals Ready to Eat to maintain my vegan diet.

When I discovered I would be traveling to Mongolia a few months prior to my departure I had images in my head of vegetable bao and fried tofu—Asian cuisine I’d grown used to feasting on in the States. I imagined eating like a vegetable queen.

But Mongolia is one of the most meat-heavy places on earth. Due to the nomadic history of the country and the firm ground that prevents gardening, meat and milk are the two most common foods. It’s worked for the Mongols for centuries but wasn’t going to work for someone like me—a vegan for 4 years.

That’s why I packed myself two months’ worth of military-style food. Though I was only in Mongolia for one month, Aaron and I were concerned about me either not having enough to eat and getting sick, or my bag getting lost in transit and me being foodless. Because of that, I divided my hiking gear and food into two different bags. Luckily, all of my bags made it, giving me a surplus of food.

After breakfast, Boldoo and Tumur picked up Aaron, Peter and me. We headed to immigration where Peter and I waited to receive visas to stay in the country for more than 30 days. Tumur snagged a number from a machine, like a grocery store deli, and we waited to be called.

When we returned to the hotel, everyone was ready for lunch.

We walked back to the hotel after lunch and split apart again, each heading to our rooms. Desperate to beat my jetlag by not sleeping during the day, I read Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Only, reading brought me to the brink of sleep, so I decided to walk up and down the hotel stairs, getting my blood pumping, and hoping that the activity would keep me awake until dinner.

Our next meal turned out to be well worth the wait. Our guides picked us up and drove us to an Afghan restaurant called Hazara where our table was piled high with naan, samosa, butter chicken and more. I filled my plate high with rice, dal and naan, eating heartily and thinking about how any spoonful could be my last filled with something other than an MRE for weeks.


Jet lag.

I wake up at 1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., and 4:00 a.m.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read through groggy eyes.

Breakfast was set for 8:00 a.m. – back downstairs to the little coffee shop with my MRE oatmeal in hand.

On the menu I saw vegetable juice and excitedly made the order, only to be handed a tomato milkshake. I smiled at my server then pushed the dairy-made beverage to the other side of the table, offering it to Aaron when he entered.

While I spooned up oatmeal, the rest of the crew ate salad covered in orange marmalade and chicken sandwiches.

After breakfast, Boldoo picked up Aaron, Peter and me to grab some miscellaneous items from the Ulaanbaatar black market. Jess and Patricia went with Tumur and his mother Otgoo Nyamdaa. She became  the assistant chef on our trip.

We arrived in a massive lot that looked almost like a flea market except that all of the “shops” were built out of storage units stacked on top of each other. We followed Boldoo as he navigated the winding path, leading us to a storage unit piled high with generators. We buy the generator from
Boldooa man wearing a shirt decorated with marijuana leaves, and sunglasses despite the cloudy sky overhead and head off to buying other supplies.

After purchasing a food tent and 12 chairs, we returned to pick up the generator and watched  same man who had helped us before snip off the plug  and start gnawing on the protective covering to reveal the wire inside. He then fed the wires through a new plug, allowing the generator to be plugged into American outlets.

As the men who’d sold us our goods helped load Boldoo’s pickup truck, we received a call from Jess asking how she should pay for groceries. That’s when Aaron and Peter realized neither of them had given her money. So, we piled into the truck and headed to the grocery store. There, we picked up pickles, meat, ramen and a lot of Snickers bars. These bars  functioned as snacks on the go, second breakfasts and desserts.

Once everything was sorted out, we headed to a Chinese restaurant where we met Baysaa, our primary chef on the trip. Everyone ate rice and lamb ribs and Jasmin tea (only rice and tea for me!). While I nibbled on bread, Tumur attempted to teach Patricia Mongolian words, while Patricia taught Tumur Spanish.


On a gray and stormy morning, we piled into three off-road vehicles and headed to Ulgii, a city in western Mongolia that would end up being our final stop in civilization before heading into the Altais.
The drive covered three nauseating days of car sickness as we navigated sharply winding roads and steep dips. Between breaks at gers for lunch where bone stew and milk tea were served and an impromptu stop to watch about 100 children under the age of 7 race horses, we sped across the rugged terrain. The feeling of the drive oscillated between Disney World’s Raging Mountain and the swinging Viking ships found at every amusement park under the sun. There were times

Multiple stops to deal with one of the car’s faulty fuel pumps made the stomach-churning drive even worse. Each time this happened, we squeezed four people into the back seat of a pickup truck and left the broken car behind to be “fixed”—or at least functional enough to carry on. In order to fit, we threw caution to the wind, and with it, our use of seat belts. Needless to say, whenever we hit a bump our heads collided with the ceiling.

Toilet facilities meant stopping for a squat behind boulders or tall tufts of grass.

On the second evening of our drive we slept under a starlit sky in our four-season tents on a night with weather so perfect it wrapped us in a blanket of warmth and lulled us to sleep.

Our sleeping bags felt like home compared to the middle school dorms our Mongolian guides had found for us to stay in the night before. The school where we had been invited to spend the night had suspicious holes in the walls of unknown origins, wallpaper on the floors and bedframes piled with uneven cardboard under the 2-inch-thick mattresses.

As we walked down the creaking, uneven hall to our rooms, Jess said she was getting “serious Resident Evil vibes.”

All of that melted into a dream as we got back on the road and I watched the landscape shift from city, to desert, to valley, to mountain.

We spent two days in Ulgii, meeting the last official member of the team, Oraza Serikbol. Like Tumur, he is a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST). By inviting MUST students to join the expedition, Aaron has not only found advocated to help obtain permission to sample boulder’s in Mongolia, but he has also provided an incredible opportunity for young Mongolians to see a part of their country they otherwise may never have ventured to.


We left Ulgii and made our way to the first campsite.

After a long day’s drive and setting up camp, we ate dinner—curtesy of Baysaa and Otgoo—and went to sleep.

In the morning the group ate a savory breakfast  of sausages, pickled vegetables and bread with a cheese so glossy everyone double checked to ensure that the plastic covering had been removed, then left behind our guides and approached the base of the mountain. Dark clouds overhead combined with the brisk morning air had convinced me to put on my base layer, sweater, winter coat and raincoat, which made mobility awkward. Our packs were weighed down with water bottles, rain clothes, notebooks and about a pound per person of rice for lunch.

The tools meant for sample collection were divided up among the group. We learned quickly that the power drill, with its weight, hindered a balanced climb and, with its odd shape, made for an impossible  fit inside a hiking pack.

What looked to be a short climb from the bottom of the mountain turned into an hour of heaving loudly and heavy steps. Often, I pushed ahead of the group to snap pictures of their climb only to bend over and grab my cramping side before having time to get out my camera.

Between a gasping breath, I turned to Tumur and joked, “So, you do this all the time, right? Just your morning workout?”

“Yep,” he said, before raising his eyebrows and pushing his lips together to make a straight line. The line shifted into a smile as he let out his own heavy breath. “This is hard.”

Boldoo likes to call Tumur “city boy” because he was raised in Ulaanbaatar. While the city’s diameter is made up of sky-scraping mountains, climbing them for fun isn’t a typical pastime. Tumur only gets this kind of exercise when Aaron and Peter travel to Mongolia.

When we finally made it to a good moraine for sample collections, the clouds had split, and the sun glistened off the tips of the green and yellow grass. We unhooked our packs and let them crash to the ground. Mine made a satisfying clunk as a water bottle carabined to the side made contact with bedrock, sending the water sloshing back and forth.

Tumur and Oraza hopped from rock to rock, bending down to pick up pebbles or to get a better look at scratches made in large pieces of stone. Jess and Patricia—the last two to make it up the mountain—sat down to catch their breath. Aaron and Peter walked through the low grass, setting their hands on boulders and letting their palms run across the tops.

They were feeling for the smooth polish that identifies boulders as having lived inside a now-receded glacier.

Eventually, Peter found one that seemed sufficient and called the student scientists over to feel the boulder’s surface for themselves.

Then, Aaron instructed everyone to get out their field books and start taking notes.

Before any samples could be collected, the crew drew the boulder and wrote out a list of characteristics, such as its size and shape.

An ideal sample fits several criteria:

  1. It has a smooth polish that characterizes it as having been processed within a glacier
  2. It’s rounded, demonstrating that significant pieces haven’t been chipped off
  3. The top surface has not been eroded by outside forces, such as bird excrement
  4. It sits at the top of a hill and its bottom is fully or mostly visible, showing that it had to have been set into place by the force of a glacier
  5. It’s large, so it could not have been rolled over easily, changing the placement of where secondary particles from streams of cosmic rays strike the surface and generate beryllium-10.

Not every boulder meets all these standards, but those are the general tells as to whether a boulder would make a good sample or not.

While jotting down the boulder’s description, Patricia asked questions: “Would you consider this a large- or medium-sized boulder?” and “What’s the scientific name for its shape?”

Her questions are welcome and encouraged.

A week earlier, as we sat in an Ulaanbaatar Korean-inspired restaurant, Aaron had passed on some advice to Patricia and Tumur given to him by glaciologist George Denton, his Ph.D. advisor and Peter’s master’s advisor at the University of Maine.

“Science is the asking of good questions,” Aaron relayed. “So, ask lots of questions.”

During the first field day, that mostly meant asking, “Am I doing this right?” and “Can you help me?”

That was particularly true when it came to Tumur, Patricia and Oraza learning how to take samples.

Tumur picked up the drill and began making small dents in the boulder. Aaron instructed him to make the dents in a straight line to prevent the risk of getting equipment stuck. With four or five dents formed, Tumur placed the drill back into each hole and pushed firmly against it to deepen the dents into finger-length tunnels.

Then, Peter showed Oraza how to insert shims and wedges into the holes. By placing wedges between two shims and hitting them with a hammer, the rock is forced to split, releasing the desired sample. But there’s a trick to getting out the perfect sample. Once the shims and wedges were in place, Oraza was instructed to start at one end and hit the wedge until the sound echoing off the hammer grew to a high-pitched ding. Then he moved to the next wedge and did the same, constantly moving down the line until reaching the last wedge, then starting over.

Ultimately, we heard a crack.

“Yes! Beautiful,” Aaron said.

The sample was exactly what Aaron and Peter were hoping for. It was long and thin, and full of quartz, the mineral needed to time the retreat of the last glaciers as the boulders broke free of the ice.

Before packaging up the sample, Peter called Patricia over to the boulder and handed her a brick-sized GPS, which is used to identify the exact coordinates of the sample. Gathering that information takes about 5 minutes as the GPS beeps to assure us it is doing its job.

Peter then took out his iPad and opened an application that maps the skyline. This is important because when the information is entered in an algorithm it can tell Aaron and Peter how the secondary cosmic rays hit the surface of the boulder.

Finally, photographs were taken of the boulder, the samples were placed into a canvas bag, and the crew was ready to move onto the next boulder.

We had to walk for quite some time before coming across a boulder that met enough of the correct criteria to make a good sample.

At dinner the night before, Aaron and Peter had said they weren’t sure how many samples they’d get the next day.

“We just don’t know how many boulders we’ll be able to sample from until we’re there,” Peter had said.

As I sipped sugarless black tea and stared up at the mountain we were scheduled to climb the following day, I’d thought, “How can that be? There are so many rocks up there.”

Trudging through wildflowers and stepping over jagged rocks, I watched the team run their hands over car-sized boulders and realized what it takes to find a good sample.

As we moved from one rock to the next, Aaron and Peter sat back while the student scientists taught each other the skills they’d learned. Acting as middle-man Tumur translated between Patricia who only speaks English and Oraza who only speaks Mongolian and Kazakh.

After a quick lunch and an excursion over a waterfall, the weather shifted, and we got caught in a rain shower. We rushed to slip into rain pants and cover our packs just as the storm picked up and the water turned cold.

But even the rain couldn’t stop the team. As our fingers numbed and our bodies shivered, we hit a stroke of good luck in the form of three boulders side-by-side, perfectly situated for sample gathering.

In a silent agreement, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza picked up equipment and began to divide and conquer. Tumur drilled, Oraza hammered, Patricia obtained the locations using a GPS. They moved like a well-oiled machine.

“We have enough for the trip,” said Aaron. “But I hate leaving any trace behind.”

The team moved on to their final boulder of the day.

This boulder was huge, round and smooth.

As we approached it, Peter said, “Tumur, what do you think?”

Tumur set his hand on the rock and shrugged.

“Seems okay,” he said.

“And Patricia, how does this compare to some of the other rocks we’ve been using?” Peter asked causing Patricia to set her pencil down and look hard at the boulder.

“It’s buried in the ground,” she answered with a high-pitched tilt to the end of the statement making it almost sound like a question.

Peter agreed and explained that though the boulder was buried, it met other criteria that made it a good boulder to take samples from.

So, as the rain poured and the wind pressed our clothes hard against our bodies, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza collected the last sample on the first day of the field season.

Just as the boulder began to split, the weather cleared.

The collected samples sat at the bottom of our packs, along with the extraction equipment making our already-heavy packs even heavier, but none of us minded because for the first time since morning the sun was shining into the valley.

The next few days carried on in a similar fashion, except for one major difference. Patricia had begun to develop stomach pains. At first, it didn’t seem like something to worry about. But as the days went on, her pain increased.


We had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a well thought through plan.

But the day had something else in mind.

We woke up and began packing up the camp to move to the next site. Once on the road, the journey should have taken no more than five hours.

Ideally, we would head to our new spot and the next day Aaron and Boldoo would head back to Ulgii to pick up Stephanie Comer, her son Luca Craigie, 16, and his friend Enzo Filippetto, 16. If Patricia was still in pain then, she could join Aaron and Boldoo and visit an Ulgii doctor.

But as we drove along and Patricia’s cries of pain grew, we hit a checkpoint that changed our plans completely.

Our three cars came to a river that should have been low enough to cross—but it wasn’t. It sped past in a wave of bubbles and kicked up stones. Clearly, the rain we had been having up in the mountains had caused the river to flood, making it appear impossible to cross.

But “impossible” isn’t in the Mongols’ vocabulary.

Boldoo, Baysaa and Bagi lined their cars up, preparing to tie them together, front to back. Boldoo’s truck being the biggest was set to role into the river first, followed by the other cars tethered using orange and purple towing rope.

But in the distance, Aaron—who had been pacing uneasily for some time—noticed Patricia hunched in a ball due to stomach cramps. Jess stood over her with concern.

I watched as Aaron walked over to them, helped Patricia up and moved them closer to the larger group.

After a hushed conversation between Aaron and Boldoo, it was decided that instead of crossing the river we would all return to Ulgii to get Patricia to a hospital. So, we piled back into the cars and our guides entered “Ulgii” into their GPS’.

Again–we had a plan.  It was a well thought through plan.

But the day had something else in mind.

Once back on the road, the drive should have taken no more than six hours.

Our coordinates were set, and the Mongols were doing what they do best—pretending to be race car drivers, flying up hills and splashing through streams.

But as we approached a spot where there should have been a bridge, a Kazakh man appeared almost out of thin air on his motorcycle. We never caught his name, so he will forever go down in history as “Motorcycle Man.”

Motorcycle Man informed our drivers that the road the GPS was leading us toward was only available in the wintertime when everything was frozen. But he assured us there was another way to get to Ulgii; he offered to show us.

This led to our back tracking, then taking a turn into a large grassy landscape that quickly revealed itself to be boggy due to the recent influx of rain in the area. Almost instantly, Bagi’s car got stuck in the mud. Boldoo attached the same rope he had originally planned to use to cross the river onto the back of his truck and the front of Bagi’s car. The car was freed instantly.

But almost as quickly, Boldoo’s truck got stuck. The tires were completely buried all the way up to the underside. I  learned the term for this is misshap –  “beached it.”

Everyone hopped out of the cars they were in to help out. Immediately, we were hit with the heat of the sun and thousands of swarming mosquitos. Because we had all assumed the trip would be a simple one that morning, our sunscreen and bug spray was buried and initially unreachable.

As we unloaded everything from the back of Boldoo’s truck into a pile, in the hope of making it lighter and therefore easier to move, we found the bug spray and lathered ourselves in it.

Then we got to work.

Tumur and Oraza took shovels and began digging out the tires while the rest of us collected rocks to slide under the tires as a sort of make-shift road.

While this was happening, Motorcycle Man lounged against his bike watching us. Eventually he turned and left. We assumed that would be the last of him, but he ended up returning with two other Kazakhs who jumped in to help us without skipping a beat.

With everyone working together, we were finally able to free the truck after three hours and get it out of the bog.

“What else could possibly go wrong?” I’d asked myself.

That was right around the time we received 4G again and the Mongols’ phones started going into action.. As we made a stop in a small village, so Boldoo could check something on his truck, Otgoo informed me with tears in her eyes that her best friend had passed away that day.

I bounced out of the car and raced to her side to squeeze her in a hug as she sobbed. That was the hardest moment of the day. The truck could be dug out with a bit of elbow grease. But Otgoo’s pain couldn’t be MacGyvered away. And Patricia needed a hospital.

We drove the rest of the way in silence. We arrived in Ulgii around 8:30 p.m. and drove directly to the hospital, an old and somewhat shattered building.

After a prescription was written for Patricia, Jess got her out of there, despite the protest of the hospital workers. The two were overwhelmed and upset. Yet, the trip was technically a success. Within hours of Patricia taking the medicine, she started to feel much better and we knew she would be safe to return to the field in a couple days.


We spent the day in Ulgii eating hotpot and grocery shopping.

Around dinnertime, Stephanie, her son and his friend arrived, and we went out to eat together.

We discussed the disastrous day we’d had before and collectively held our breath hoping we wouldn’t run into anything that unfortunate again.

The next day was spent bumping along back roads to get to the campground we were supposed to already have been set up at 2 days prior.

As we entered the national park we discovered the mud to be wet and soft, which was stressful because of the loud revving sound the engines made as the cars pushed up hill, and because the memory of digging the truck out of the mu for three hours played on repeat in all of our minds.

Eventually we made it to the peak of a large hill, right above where our camp would end up being. There, we discovered a beautiful monument made up of multicolored fabric and piled rocks. Monuments like this are all over Mongolia, often alongside roads for travelers to pass. When approaching a monument, one is supposed to circle it three times clockwise, tossing small pebbles onto its flat surface, or leaving offerings for the spirits such as animal fat or alcohol.

The peak also had something else: a man with a horse and an eagle. He would forever be referred to as “Eagle guy.” For a small fee visitors of the park could take pictures holding the humongous bird. Tumur saw me staring fondly at the majestic creature and asked if I’d like a picture. Of course, I said yes. Then, one by one everyone filed in to get their picture taken with the eagle.

While I admit I was the first in line, as each member of the group walked up to take their picture, a knot started forming in my stomach. I’ve heard the horrors of wildlife tourism and worried I was contributing to the poor treatment of animals. I asked Otgoo as Eagle Man how he handles owning such a large creature. He said he takes the bird out hunting regularly, only bringing the bird out for pictures on warmer days. In a year or so, he will release the eagle to the wild, rather than have it spend its entire life as his pet. This made me feel less guilty. And either way, the bird was so heavy. Clearly it was eating well. I’d like to imagine some of the money we used to get our pictures taken goes toward the care of the eagle—though I’ll never be able to confirm that.

We got back in our cars and drove down the other side of the hill. When the land flattened out a bit, we set up camp and ate bread and coffee, waiting for a delicious dinner prepared by Baysaa and Otgoo.

After dinner, we pulled our chairs out of the dinning tent we’d set up and sat in the open air, watching the birds fly overhead and the mountains glisten as the sun set.


Outside the rain beat down on our tents like little beads bouncing off the tightly held fabric. Despite everything inside of me begging me to stay tucked in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I knew our only having two sampling days in the park meant everyone needed to be awake and alert on time. But as I got dressed and crawled out of my tent, I discovered Jess was the only other person awake. I checked my watch—7 a.m. Had plans been changed in during the guitar playing the night before?

We’d learn later that  the Mongols refuse to come out of their tents in a heavy rain.  Because Baysaa (our chef) also follows this unspoken rule, and because we needed breakfast in order to head out for the day, it didn’t make sense for anyone to come out into wet weather  until the Mongols emerged first.

After about another hour, everyone was awake and eating. Some ate toast; others ate eggs and sausage.

We headed out in small groups. The first to leave were Peter, Oraza, Tumur and I. Next were Aaron and the Comer crew, followed by Jess and Patricia. Our camp sat on the edge of a massive lateral moraine. In order to collect the desired samples we had to climb down the edge through spongy, wet grass and steep rocky hills.

Peter wanted to collect samples from the flat ground where a glacier likely sat thousands of years ago, but as we made it down to flat land he quickly realized there weren’t as many boulders to sample as he and Aaron had hoped. Still, he found some; it simply meant longer walks between samples.

We’d experienced rain on and off throughout the day. The cold seeped through our jackets making us shiver. I walked in circles or huddled in a ball to stay warm as I watched Oraza, Tumur and Patricia chip away at boulders and stick samples in canvas bags.

The rain finally cleared when we decided to head back. At some point earlier on, Luca and Enzo decided to leave the group and attempt to climb a mountain. Stephanie and I split off to find them only to discover they had climbed a third of the way up. We called to them and watched as they slid their way down to lower ground where we met them on our way back.

The science team hung back to take drone images while we walked back to camp. Between the four of us, we were sure we would be able to find our way. But after about two hours of walking up hill and slipping into knee-high wetlands we started to question if we were lost. The walk down hadn’t seemed so long, and all of the moraines started looking the same. With so many hills blocking our view from above and below we had no idea whether we’d passed our camp or if we had more to walk.

We calmed ourselves only to come over a hill and see nothing but an endless sprawl of moraines.

We did miraculously eventually find our camp, exhausted and relieved.

An hour later the rest of the team strolled in—and just in time. Almost as soon as they appeared a film of fog crept over the moraines and into the valley creating an impossible wall of white. Finding camp with clear air had been difficult enough. I can’t imagine what we’d have done had the fog hit a couple hours earlier.


Despite the unfortunate weather of the day before, we woke to a perfectly clear sky. The sun shone down and gleamed off the tips of the glaciers across from our camp.

Aaron and Peter had prepared for us to hike down into the valley over very young moraines (maybe even less than 100 years old) and walk onto an actively melting glacier.

Walking down the moraine was a challenge for everyone. While older moraines are covered in foliage and firmly set in place, these young moraines were more like a sand dune covered in boulders. There was a constant fear of falling or the rocks rolling out from under our feet. On the way down I stepped down and the ground crumbled away from me, causing me to slide a few feet before stopping as my shin slammed into a sturdy boulder. I gritted my teeth and ignored the swollen throbbing, determined to finish my descent quickly.

As usual, Peter and Oraza touched down first, followed by me and the Comer crew. Aaron had originally been keeping stride with Peter until he realized Patricia struggling at the top of a hill and hiked back up to help Tumur and Jess show her the way down.

Once we all got on the ground, Peter led us to the glacier’s edge, and we stepped on. The ground was lumpy and slightly slippery, with rocks and animal bones melting their way through to the surface, We hopped over the most beautifully clear water, admiring the way it snaked it’s way left and right, waterfalling into deep caverns too dark for us to spot the bottom only to reemerge elsewhere down the glacier.

Aaron and Peter wanted to collect samples from rocks as they poked through the glacier ice or sat atop it on puckered ledges that made the glacier look like it was putting the rocks on display to see if any beryllium-10 would be present. Their assumption is that there won’t be, but there’s no way to be certain until they process the samples back home.

The field day was cut short due to our long hike we’d had the day before, so after lunch we packed up our backs and headed back up the moraine. We took a different path up than we did to come down, which initially appeared more stable until I stepped into sand-covered sludge that came up to my calves and caked my feet.

Hiking up a moraine is hard. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack is harder yet. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack and having your feet caked in heavy, wet sand is even harder. Still, I knew stopping for breaks would only make the already seemingly endless walk even longer, so I kept moving until my back ached and my feet cramped.

This time, we stayed together on our walk back to camp, arriving just as a light shower moved in. But the rain couldn’t change the fact that we’d had an incredible day, which is wonderful because it was the last field day for the Comer crew, Patricia and Jess. The next day they’d head home.


We hugged a lot as our groups prepared to separate. Packing up camp, we helped each other take down tents and wrap up boxes of food. Patricia, Jess and I discussed our favorite parts of being together on this incredible journey, collectively wishing they could stay until the end. But we knew that wasn’t possible. The day I return to Chicago will find Jess back in the classroom, with only a week before Patricia heads to college.

When everything was packed, we climbed into different cars and made our way back up the mountain to where we’d seen the shrine a few days prior. While some of the group walked around the ribbon laden monument, the man hired to drive the crew going home ran into Eagle Guy and offered him a seat in his car. To all our surprise and delight, Eagle Guy invited us to his family ger, which is where we found ourselves as we exited the border of the national park.

There, we were offered airag, a traditional Mongolian beverage made from fermented horse milk. Our Mongolian guides slurped up bowls of the white-colored wine, while the Westerners smiled and held their bowls in their laps, only bringing them to their lips when Eagle Guy’s family gestured for everyone to take a sip.

Peter and I snuck ours to Bagi who accepted them with a nod and a “thank you.”

We split up shortly after visiting Eagle Guy’s home – half heading in the direction of Ulgii and the rest heading to Khovd Gol (river) where we would set up our next camp.

Some members of the team of 15 had left and we’d  dwindled down to only 10. It felt odd not being able to point out beautiful landscapes as we drove to Jess or setting up camp without watching Patricia determinately hammer in the stakes on her own. I hoped that their trip home would go smoothly and feel shorter than it was. But I also knew it would be a few weeks before I’d be able to hear any updates for myself.

Our new camp was isolated. Not only from 4G data, but from people. As we drove up alongside a breathtaking river, passing rock burials and distant trees, we noticed there were no other people in site This wasn’t necessarily unusual considering we’d rarely encountered people at the other field sites, but we did quickly learn there was a reason for this particular spots vacancy: mosquitos. They buzzed around our heads, bit our bottoms as we squatted to relieve ourselves, crawled on our food as we ate lunch and dinner. It was miserable. No amount of smoked yak feces or bug spray could stop them. Still, Aaron and Peter had chosen the spot for a reason and samples needed to be taken.


Our next camp was only about a 2-hour drive away at Khurgan Nuur (lake). Though Peter informed me we could have stayed at our previous camp much longer, the mosquitos had forced us to move on.

Thank goodness.

Our final campground was the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. We staked our tents right next to the lake, whose cool breeze prevented bothersome mosquitos from making an appearance. On the other side of the lake the glaciers towered over, creating a wall of rock, snow and trees. Herders road their horses across the grassy hills, while their goats and sheep ate their way through the greenery. It was perfect.

The first day of sampling surprised us all. As we walked along the flat moraines we found a number of gigantic rocks, but years of harsh weather and rock-climbing goats had eroded the surfaces making them poor samples. Some were collected, of course, but not as many as I think anyone expected as we drove up to the camp.

The next day Bagi drove the science crew to a few hills that Aaron and Peter had sampled from in the past. We spent the day hiking to the top, taking drone images of the landscape and eating bread and canned cow meat (I of course refrained from the meat, though even if I were a carnivore I believe I’d have steered clear as it literally looked like cat food).

That night as we ate huushuur (an empanada-like dish made from folded and stuffed fried dough) and drank Russian beer and vodka, Peter made an enouncement. The next day would be a rest day. Everyone had worked so hard this season, he’d said, that we all deserved a break to enjoy the countryside.

But when we woke up the next morning the sky was too clear, the weather too perfectly calm for Peter to pass up the chance to take good drone images. So, he, Oraza and Tumur left to do work on our day off.

When they returned, they regretted their decision. As the drone returned from its fourth or fifth flight, an eagle attacked it, sending it spinning toward the ground. It’s a good thing the University of Maine has drone insurance, though Peter said he isn’t sure it covers eagle attacks. Time will tell.


I awoke to a rainstorm. Groggily, I forced myself out of my sleeping bag and began packing up my belongings.

The field season was over, and it was time to head back to civilization.

The rain persisted as we took down our tents and loaded up the cars for the last time. After a breakfast of oatmeal, bread and eggs we left behind our stunning campsite.

We drove through storming rivers and across poorly built bridges. At one point we stopped and Oraza an Tumur collected a sample as the rain raged on.

Our first stop was Oraza’s summer ger. After about a four-hour drive we encountered his father herding his animals up a hill on horseback. We followed him to the ger where Oraza’s mother, two sisters, a younger brother and  dog greeted us. The dog,  a friendly jumper,  loved to pounce onto me as I passed, resting his front paws on my arms while maintaining eye contact as if begging me to give him attention.

While I ate way too much bread, everyone else devoured steaming milk tea, chocolate cakes and a traditional Kazakh meal comprised of a lamb head placed atop a pile of flat noodles. I sipped my tea, made from grass, while the rest of the group took out Swiss army knives and tore cooked meat fromf a lamb’s head and shared food from the platter at the center of the table.

We returned to our cars and drove the five hours back to Ulgii where we stayed the night in a hotel with each of our rooms missing at least one essential thing (e.g. toilet paper, soap, working faucets).

Peter and I hoped we to camp in Ulaanbaatar for the next few nights. He and Aaron had previously shared horror stories about some of the hotels the Mongols had found for them on other trips.

But the Mongols are the drivers and in the end they decide where we stay while on the road. Their desire: no more camping. So, we ended up staying in hotels, though to my surprise each one we slept in was cleaner and nicer than the one proceeding it.

Our drive went smoothly, allowing us to arrive in Ulaanbaatar 3 days later in the middle of the afternoon. We were dropped off at one of the city’s best hotels, the Chinggis Khaan Hotel which was by far the nicest place we’d stayed since arriving in Mongolia.


Peter and I met with the Mongols for lunch. We went to a mall where everyone ordered hotpot, while I ate food from a vegan restaurant a short walk away. That’s where we met Uyunga Botbold (Boldoo and Otgoo’s daughter). She works in an office above the floor of the mall where we ate, and she decided to take her lunch break to sit with us and ask us about the field season.

After lunch Peter, Tumur, Oraza and I went to the National Museum of Mongolia where we walked the three floors and learned about the history of Mongolian wardrobes, gers, toys and more.

Later we met up with Boldoo and Otgoo for a mouth-wateringly good dinner at Hazara, the Afghani restaurant we’d eaten at on our first night in Mongolia.

Before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, Peter and I got made reservations at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel for six nights. But as we waited to get picked up the next morning, we received a message from Boldoo explaining that the hotel was kicking us out because they were overbooked.

Shocked, we gathered our belonging and waited for Bagi to pick us up. He drove us to the Batbold’s apartment where Peter, Tumur and Oraza sorted, weighed and packaged each sample. This was done in the apartment building’s parking garage because no other place was available.

When the samples were fully prepared for shipping, we went to an American-style restaurant called The California where we ordered salad, sushi, milk shakes and French fries.

After lunch, we were taken to the Blue Sky Hotel,h was exponentially nicer then than any place we’d stayed. The Blue Sky sits next to the Ulaanbaatar square, has a top floor lounge where cocktails and dinners are served, an all-you-can-eat buffet for breakfast and a gym. I would end up taking advantage of all of these facilities during my time at the hotel.

From there, Tumur escorted Peter, Oraza and me to a throat singing performance where we saw witnessed traditional Mongolian song and dance.


We spend the morning souvenir shopping before meeting up with Oraza and Tumur’s geology professor Uyanga Bold. Bold serves a fundamental role in assisting Aaron and Peter in getting all the paperwork needed to enter the country and ship back the samples. With her help, Peter was able to pass off his four boxes of samples to a man in charge of shipping, before we all went to eat Korean food for lunch.

On the 17th Bagi, Baysaa (plus his golden retriever named Suzie), Tumur and Oraza met us at our hotel to take Peter and me on an adventure. We drove about an hour out of the city on unpaved roads to the largest monument of Genghis Khan in the country. The metal man sits proudly atop a massive horse, dressed ready for battle.

After climbing a winding staircase with halls just big enough for a single-file line of people to move up or down we arrived at the horse’s head and looked out at the Mongolian backdrop. It was beautiful… but claustrophobic. I felt significantly more relaxed when we were on our way out than I did staring off into the distance of the serene landscape.

We’d later have dinner at the Batbold household, where we’d be served homemade buuz (Mongolian-style dumplings) and a generous amount of alcohol.

On our final day in Mongolia, I had asked Otgoo and Boldoo if they would take me to the monastery to interview a lama for a story I’m working on. The experience ended up being life changing.

Over a dozen brightly colored buildings sit within the walls of the monastery. As we walked down the road, we passed monks as young as 8 or 9 years old, and of course, some much older. We wove in and out of buildings decorated with colorful ribbons and golden statues of goddesses.

I’ve never felt so calm in my life.

After Otgoo translated my questions to the monk, he invited us to the second floor of one of the temples—a place only lamas are allowed. There, we could get better view of a golden goddess’ face.

The three of us left the monastery and headed for a late lunch at Luna Blanca (oddly, “white moon” in Spanish), a vegan restaurant I’d come across online.We ate soup, mashed potatoes, mock meat and milkshakes. After being deprived of soymilk (a staple of my diet) for nearly five weeks, discovering the restaurant had vegan hot chocolate was a wonderful surprise.

From there, I joined the two as the furniture shopped and browsed potential used cars to purchase before heading to Hazara for dinner. That’s where we met up with almost all of our guides as well as another group of Western student scientists who had been traveling with Aaron’s father for the past 5 weeks. We discussed the similarities and differences between our experiences in Mongolia as we piled our plates high with naan, dal and butter chicken.

Boldoo and Otgoo drove us to the hotel, informing us we’d be taken to the airport the next morning by Bagi. My eyes stung as we said our goodbyes, and I noticed Otgoo wipe tears from her eyes as we pulled out of a hug. At the monastery that day, she’d told the lama I was her daughter. She will always be my Mongolian mother.

I  miss everyone more than I could have ever imagined.

Photo at top: Stephanie Fox, ready to report, dressed for the field while still in the city of Ulgii. She stands in front of an “I love Ulgii” sign. (Jess Stevens, environmental science teacher at the Gary Comer College Prep High School in Chicago.)



By Kelly Calagna –

Aaron Putnam of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine is searching for clues to climate change at altitudes of 15,000 feet in China this summer. What caused the Earth to lurch out of the last Ice Age and how does knowing that help predict the impact of human activities pushing at Earth’s climate now? Climate levers are not yet well understood, and what causes them is still a mystery Putnam is continuing to unravel.To weave together the clues, Putnam is finding data on the Tibetan Plateau. He was awarded an Early Career Award by the National Science Foundation to pursue this work. Medill Comer Foundation Scholar Kelly Calagna is embedded with Putnam and the research team for the length of the field season and is blogging about the experience.

A glacial valley on the Tibetan Plateau; this summer’s field site for a team of paleoclimate geologists from the University of Maine. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)

TIBETAN PLATUEAU, CHINA, AUG. 6,Throughout our planet’s existence, Earth has experienced periods of warming and cooling, with glaciers expanding and receding according to this natural variation in the climate system. However, our current climate flux accelerated by human use of fossil fuels is not so typical, and glacially deposited boulders can prove it.

“The landscape’s morphology tells a story,” said Aaron Putnam, paleoclimatology professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. And the story it tells is the history of our planet’s climate.

Moraines, or hills formed at the points of a glacier’s maximum reach, are the footprints left behind by glaciers of past ice ages, acting as visual timelines for a glacier’s history through periods of climate changes. Boulders perched on moraines were deposited there by glaciers at an equilibrium, neither expanding nor shrinking during periods of stable climate. Boulders scattered up the valley were tossed there as the climate warmed and the melting glacier retreated up mountain.

By comparing the deposit dates and locations of these glacially abandoned boulders, scientists are able to calculate the rate of recessions of the glacier – the rate of past global warmings.

How do scientists calculate such a date as when a glacier dropped a boulder?

Beryllium 10.

A researcher clears dust out of holes that were drilled into a boulder as part of the sample removal process. (Kelly Calagna/Medil)

Beryllium 10 is a unique isotope that is collected in the surface of the boulders as they are exposed to cosmic rays in our atmosphere. “It starts building and building over the years as an archive—it acts as a cosmic clock,” said Putnam.

The boulders the scientists sample originated high up in the mountains as rock debris ripped off the mountainside by compacting snow at the top of the glacier. The force of ice sent the rock on a grinding journey down the mountain: shaving it down, rounding its edges and polishing the surface.

After years in frozen darkness, the boulders reemerged from their icy prison, fresh-faced and, theoretically, with any beryllium 10 deposits from its past life on a mountainside eliminated.

Their reemergence starts a new exposure to cosmic rays, and the beryllium 10 begins collecting like tick marks in the progression of time. “That boulder is capturing the moment that the glacier left it there,” said Putnam.

At Putnam’s field site high up on the Tibetan Plateau, the boulders retain roughly 70 atoms of beryllium 10 in every gram of quartz per year—the lower density atmosphere at the high elevation allows for more cosmogenic rays to interact with the boulder than at lower altitudes—and the scientists can use this information to measure for an absolute deposit date for each boulder sample.

By looking into our planet’s climate history, we gain a better understanding on where we stand today with our warming planet. “We can look at the past and piece together the puzzle of how the climate system works,” said Putnam, “And then from that, be able to predict how perturbing it with greenhouse gasses the way that we are may influence change.”


University of Maine graduate student Mariah Radue pilots a drone as it maps a geological field site that can give us clues to climate change. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)

Drones have proven themselves to be multidimensional little devices: from shooting HD video for the film industry, to potentially becoming Amazon’s future means of merchandise delivery. But beyond videographers and curriers, these little robots can also be scientists.

A geological research group from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute has adopted drones as part of the team, using the devices to map their field sites—this summer on the Tibetan Plateau.

“I find it a game changer,” said Mariah Radue, a graduate student at the University of Maine who is piloting the DJI Phantom IV drone this field season in China, “It helps in that I can revisit the field area really well.”

The team of paleogeologists uses the drone to collect images of glacial landscapes through series of pre-planned flight routes, which they can later synthesize into highly detailed maps and gain insights into the area’s past changes in climate.

“Our two main goals are to create aerial photographs, which are really detailed—we can see our boulders on them—and then the second goal is to create digital elevation models, which are basically topographic maps,” said Radue.

At 13 cm per pixel, the maps developed by the drone footage are at far higher resolution than available satellite data. The images are so detailed that “we will be able to see the height of our tents,” said Radue.

These images help the scientists relate the morphology of the landscape to the boulders they are sampling, allowing for better understanding of the boulder’s history. Boulders set upon moraines, or hills formed by the points of a glacier’s maximum ice extent, suggest that they were deposited there during a time of climate stability, where the glacier was at equilibrium, neither growing or shrinking. Boulders in more sporadic locations suggest a time of global warming when they were dumped on the landscape as the glacier was melting and receding up the valley. By comparing the dates of the different glacially deposited boulders, the scientists can better understand our planet’s climate history, as well as project how human influence will affect it in the future.

“One of the most important things that we do in this type of work is mapping the perimeter of the former ice age glacier,” said Aaron Putnam, professor of paleoclimatology at the University of Maine and principal researcher of the project. “It’s the geometry of those paleo glaciers that can help us reconstruct past climate,” said Putnam, “The droning has opened up a whole new world for us.”

Research assistant and Comer College Prep High School student Maya Sheriff catches the Phantom IV drone as it returns from mapping a glacial valley near Litang, China. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)


Scientists extract a sample from a boulder on a glacial moraine near Litang, China, to determine when the glaciers retreated. (L to R) Paleoclimatology Professor Aaron Putnam, graduate student Peter Strand and undergraduate student Ben Lindsay of the University of Maine, and Xianghui Kong and Guocheng Dong, post-doctorate students with the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Earth Environment. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)

LITANG, CHINA JULY 17, 2017.  Less than 2 percent of the world’s population lives above 8,200 feet, and we are almost doubling that baseline elevation, for climate research in China this summer.

This field season, scientists from the University of Maine in a collaboration with the Institute of Earth Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have set their sights high on geological field sites on the Tibetan plateau to gain insight into our planet’s climate history. I am along for the ride to document this important research.

Fieldwork can be grueling—long days, heavy packs, inclement weather—and at this elevation, the lack of oxygen can be stifling.

We passed the subalpine zone days ago on our ascent from Kangding to Litang; It was a sudden rise out of the tree line as we wound up the valley road, the air too thin for the tall Chinese pines.

At over 13,000 feet, the air pressure in Litang is 39 percent less than it is at sea level, meaning less oxygen available to saturate the body’s hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from our lungs to our body’s tissues.

This interruption of homeostasis causes the body to find ways to compensate but it can take days, or even weeks, for people to acclimate. The heart rate increases, as does respiration, while hunger can seemingly disappear as your body puts digestion on a backburner as it deals with the cellular challenge it is facing. If the body cannot adapt, it can be fatal.

“I’m actually doing better than I expected,” said Jessica Stevens, an environmental science teacher from Gary Comer College Prep High School in Chicago, who is assisting in the field. “I have to stop every so often and [blows] shove out all the carbon dioxide. The problem I’m having more is the side effect of our altitude medication,” said Stevens.

Stevens, as well as many others in the group, have reported a tingling sensation in their limbs, and even their faces, as a result of taking Acetazolamide. Acetazolamide, more commonly known as Diamox, is a medication that helps the body acclimate and can ward off acute mountain sickness, or AMS.

What makes this science worth the journey above the clouds?

“Well, it’s of great scientific interest. It’s a site that captures a remarkable period in Earth’s history that’s trying to tell us about how the climate system works,” said climate scientist Aaron Putnam, principal researcher from the University of Maine and the research team leader.

The Tibetan Plateau is in a unique location, receiving energy in the air masses that come off of the Indo-Pacific region—the warmest waters on Earth. Putnam calls the planet’s “heat engine.”

“The reason we came here is because it is one of the closest places you can get to that warm pool and also find glaciers and spectacular records in the landscape.” The morphology of the valleys act as a visual timeline, indicating the progression and recession of glaciers through the ice ages by leaving behind carved out ridges, called moraines.

While the research team has acclimated well this past week in Litang, tomorrow we all face a new challenge. We are continuing our assent northeast of Batang, to an elevation of over 15,000 feet—nearly reaching the same altitude as the Mount Everest base camp. At that elevation, oxygen is at half the concentration as it is at sea level.

“We have several plans in order in case someone becomes ill from the altitude, but I think everyone is adjusting well,” said Putnam, “I spent a semester in Iceland when I was in college and they had a saying: ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only being poorly prepared,’” he said. “For the most part, if you come prepared, you can enjoy yourself, and do good science. Even with the wide range of conditions we can experience out here.”

Onwards and upwards.

PHOTO AT TOP: University of Maine paleoclimatology Professor Aaron Putnam extracts a sample from a glacially deposited boulder on the Tibetan Plateau to find clues to climate change. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)



By Kelly Calagna –

Every autumn climate scientists from diverse disciplines gather at the Comer Climate Conference on a farm in rural Wisconsin. They focus on the latest research to predict the on-going pace of sea level rise, the retreat of the glaciers past and present and the profound threat to our planet as human communities force climate change.

Some influential scientists in attendance included Richard AlleyGeorge Denton, Klaus Lackner and Wallace Broecker, known as one of the grandfathers of climate change research.

Photo at top: Atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as the thermostat for Earth. Rising levels of this greenhouse gas, resulting primarily from fossil fuel use and emissions, are driving global warming. “The visualization highlights the advances scientists are making in understanding the processes that control how much emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and how long it stays there — questions that ultimately will determine Earth’s future climate,” according to NASA. “Using observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, scientists have developed a new model of carbon behavior in our atmosphere from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015. Such models can be used to better understand and predict where carbon dioxide concentrations could be especially high or low. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers)


Aaron Putnam of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine is searching for the switches that caused the Earth to lurch out of the last Ice Age. Climate levers are not yet well understood, and “just what the heck” causes them is still a mystery he’s hoping to solve in Mongolia this summer. To weave together the clues, Putnam is trying to find data in a remote ice field in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. Putnam was awarded an Early Career Award by the National Science Foundation to pursue this work. Medill Comer Scholar Kevin Stark and Destiny Washington, a 17-year old student at Chicago’s Gary Comer College Prep are embedded with Putnam and the research team for the length of the field season and blogging about the experience in these pages.

The final days of a Mongolian odyssey in search of climate clues
By Kevin Stark

The Potanin Glacier in the Mongolian Altai (Kevin Stark / Medill).

Wednesday, Aug. 3. Our journey ends in a science laboratory at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Ulan Bator.

Three long rows of work benches, science posters tacked to the wall, and rocks piled around the room fill the geology lab, lit by four chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. More than 120 of the rock samples collected by the University of Maine team are piled onto these tables, each in individual canvas bags, information carefully written in black permanent marker on the sides. Clues to climate change lie within, a time machine that traces the retreat of the glaciers with each rock.

Oyungerel Sambuu, a professor at the university, will be helping the team ready all of the documents for exporting the samples. Her students, Ninjin Tsolmon, or Ninjin, and Purevdorj Purev-Ochir, Oochko, accompanied us for the entire field season. They are surveying their own samples—roughly 60 rocks.

Ninjin Tsolmon (right) and Purevdorj Purev-Ochir (left) are geology students at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (Kevin Stark / Medill).

Ninjin and Oochko are geology students at MUST, and while their summer project dovetails with the work of our team, led by Aaron Putnam of the  University of Maine, the intention of their work is different.

They are collecting many different types of rocks—bedrock, sandstone, pyrite, malachite, quartz veins, manganese oxide and others. Now that the rocks are back at MUST, they will examine them under a microscope. “Maybe we can find some geologic minerals from inside the samples,” Ninjin said.

Ninjin and Oochko are learning how to find and identify metals embedded in bedrock, a useful skill for research or professional work in Mongolia’s mining sector. They are looking for metals like copper, iron, and zinc. “This was a very successful field season,” Ninjin said. They will also create a map of the bedrock from information they gathered around the Potanin Glacier site.

Oochko and Ninjin will record all of their information and complete a report. Next spring, they present their findings at a competition with other Mongolian geology students from surrounding universities. I ask them if they will be the winner, and they smile. “I don’t know,” Ninjin said.

I am certain they will have a competitive project, and Aaron agrees. “They did very well, and they are very strong,” he said, “It was a hard trip. They did much more than was expected, beyond just the geology, they helped translate, helped with camp. It was great.”

Ninjin Tsolmon drilling into a granite boulder (Kevin Stark / Medill).


Midday, we break for a lunch at Los Banditos, a Mexican restaurant that also serves Indian food. I order a banana lassi and chicken tacos. After a month of eating mostly boiled mutton, the food in UB is a welcomed change for the whole group—even if it’s a strange fusion of dishes.

Peter Strand, a Ph.D student at University of Maine, is wearing a blue colored shirt, shorts and sandals. He has scrubbed off the thick layer of sunscreen, bug spray, and mountain grit that accumulated over the month-long field season. He has shaved, but he kept a mustache for several days.

Back at the university, Pete is directing the team, readying the rock samples for shipment to the United States. The group is inventorying and weighing the rocks. Pete needs a bill from MUST certifying that the rocks have no commercial value, and then he’ll pack up the samples in big blue barrels.


They need the weight of every sample for an official inventory list to give to the Mongolian shipping company. They also must estimate the value of non-rock items. Aaron told me some nightmare stories of other earth scientists whose precious samples were lost or didn’t arrive for over a year.

“That’s the nice thing about rocks,” Pete said. “They have been sitting on the landscape for thousands of years, a little time banging around in a bag isn’t going to hurt anything.” But if the samples get mixed or contaminated, they would be useless.

The samples will be sent to the airport in New York, where Pete will hire a person to pick them up a drive them to University of Maine.

The entire research team gathered at the Potanin Glacier (Kevin Stark / Medill).

One remaining question is what happened to our GPS base station. The most expensive piece of our equipment never arrived in Mongolia from our flight out of the Beijing airport. Today, Aaron went to the airport to see if it had arrived while we were in the field.

“Low and behold, I did not find our base station,” he said. “We left today with no resolution to the problem.” So that means that it’s either in the airport in Beijing, it was sent back to Maine, or it is lost to the ether of the world. “Any one of those three possibilities,” Aaron said.  “I’m wondering if the latter option is the closest to being correct.”

At the end of the day, our blue barrels are filled, and all the paperwork has been prepared. I see Ninjin and Oochko walking outside with wide smiles, two accomplished students ready to enjoy the last weeks of summer.

For the Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis, the trip ending seems to be settling in. “It all worked,” he said.

“We are almost 40 days in and everybody is still talking and walking and that’s all we could have asked for,” he said, laughing.  While the science expedition has been successful, our group survived a challenging field season without any major injuries or real emergencies.

“It’s one thing getting them here, it’s another getting them home safe and everyone having a good experience and we have all accomplished that and that’s pretty fantastic,” Scott said.

University of Maine researchers return to a valley of climate clues: 

By Kevin Stark

Aaron Putnam and Peter Strand, both of University of Maine, hiking along a glacial moraine on the last day in the field. (Kevin Stark / Medill).
Aaron Putnam and Peter Strand, both of University of Maine, hiking along a glacial moraine on the last day in the field. (Kevin Stark / Medill).


Wednesday, July 27. A steep decline and a long hike through boggy terrain swamped with mosquitos took us from the Takhilt Valley into the Khoton Nuur tributary valley of the Altai Mountains. The trip’s lead scientist Aaron Putnam has explored this valley for clues to climate trigger over the past three summers. Last year, he came with Peter Strand, his graduate student from University of Maine, and together, they sampled granite moraines dating back to the last Ice Age when the glaciers dumped them here and retreated. The climate clues are in the rocks. “This is an important part of the valley,” Pete said.

We camped here for several days, primarily flying the drone to collect images for producing high resolution maps. At the University of Maine lab, Aaron and Pete have rock samples waiting to be processed and dated, but “we didn’t have a good map, until now,” Pete said.

The campsite is quiet and near a thin section of the a tributary river. In the evenings, group members fish for Mongolian grayling. It’s delicious, and eating it reminds me of the trout from the alpine lakes in the Sierra Nevadas. There is a climate story even with this fish, as they are usually only found in the Arctic Ocean and waterways that are connected to it. That makes their presence another mystery. “They are completely isolated here, totally landlocked, and we have no idea why.” Aaron said.

The drone work in this valley completed, we drove down the dirt valley roads lined with larch trees, the white water of the river rumbling like a train. Soon, we see the Khoton Nuur Lake, an expansive, thin body of water, sharp valley walls rising high in both directions.

From that vantage point, granite boulders are spread out across the ground without any organization. “Where do you sample?” Aaron said. “You could get a date every meter for the entire length.” Near the lake, the bedrock is granite, not greywacke like other parts of the Altai Tavand Bogd National Park that we have been.

We reach a series of moraines looking over a collection of biluuts, sections of bedrock terrain that have been molded by glaciers. Pete sampled in this area last year, on rounded, grass covered moraines. He is here to complete the sampling set of the huge ridge of boulders left behind as the glacier melted.

Last year, he was unable to  access a high set of moraines because of a rocky pathway. We stopped to inquire about a road at a local ger, the traditional Mongolian home made of felt and wood. Thankfully, there is a road, and we are pointed in the right direction. Had driving not been possible, we might have had to rent camels or horses again.

We drove to the top of the hill and camped near a thin stream. After preparing our camp, we hiked over the moraine ridges that spread out from the mountains like the ripples of the lake. Our intention is to explore and plan for a few days of sampling.

At this new location, local children kept coming to visit us, sometimes in pairs—the braver ones leading the way. We gave them candy, sweets, pens and pencils that change color when you hold them in your hand. Aaron packed them with the kids in mind.

The hike up to the Potanin Glacier and back is a well-traveled backpacking route for international tourists, so our crew carrying rock drills and drones was not that exciting.  “We are off the beaten path, and back in the land of curiosity,” Aaron said.

University of Maine’s Mariah Radue and Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington measure a granite boulder at the group’s last field site. (Kevin Stark / Medill)
University of Maine’s Mariah Radue and Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington measure a granite boulder at the group’s last field site. (Kevin Stark / Medill)

Early in our stay here, we walked to the highest moraine in this area, and a new landscape emerged. It’s filled with glacial debris, a ground moraine with a terrain that reminds me of the terminus of the Potanin Glacier.

From this vantage point, it’s a chaotic morphological feature, but from the satellite images that Pete and Aaron studied before the trip, this was completely indiscernible—another reason it is so important that our team will be capturing drone footage.

The sampling was easy and, for the most part, so did the drone work. At one point, the mapping application crashed when the drone was more than a kilometer away from our camp.

Fortunately, the Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis landed it, and the drone was found after a short search.

We left the Khoton Nuur tributary valley in cars, stopping in a small town to eat dumplings and drink milk tea. From here, it was a several hour drive back to what Aaron and Pete believe is the last glacial maximum of the Potanin Glacier, or the Potanin LGM, as we fondly call it. It had stormed the night before and our caravan  stopped several times when trucks stuck in the thick gray muck.

At the beginning of the trip, we stopped here for a short time, so it’s full circle for us now. From our make-shift breakfast table, we could look down the valley framed by towering red rock hills. In the evening, the light here is silver, the hills seem soft, and what little vegetation there is will almost glow. The red of the mountains is similar to places in the American West, Utah, Nevada. “This is Asia’s West,” Aaron said.


Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington and climate researcher Aaron Putnam prepare their tents at the last field site. (Kevin Stark / Medill)
Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington and climate researcher Aaron Putnam prepare their tents at the last field site. (Kevin Stark / Medill)

Over the next four days, University of Maine graduate student Mariah Radue will be leading the team, mapping all of the moraines and getting samples from the most prominent ones. Before the trip, she identified what is likely a major glacial advance and a major recessional—she wants samples from both. Also, outboard of the prominent moraine, there are ears from previous advances. “It would be great to pin down the dates,” she said.

These days mark the last leg of our field season, and the crew is looking a bit wild. Aaron’s blue eyes seem to gleam brighter, everyone’s skin is hard and covered in mosquito bites, dry from the sun. I have sun spots on my fingers – bumps resulting from many days in the hot sun.  Our food supply runs low, and we are eating sardines and dry bread, along with our coffee and tea. But everyone is happy and healthy, looking forward to a hot shower at a hotel in the city of Ölgii, before our five-day drive back to Ulan Bator.

The 10-mile hike to 10,000 feet test us humans and our camels

By Kevin Stark

The group gathers around a granite boulder that will be sampled above the Takhilt Valley, were they spent several rainy days (Kevin Stark/Medill).
Wednesday, July 20. The group gathers around a granite boulder that will be sampled above the Takhilt Valley (Kevin Stark/Medill).

It’s a chilly morning when we leave our campsite at the Potanin Glacier and hike back into the Tsagaan Gol Valley. My tent is coated in a thick layer of frost. I eat some bread and jam and drink coffee and let the tent dry out before packing up.

Mentally, the group is preparing for our trek over the Takhilt Pass or, at least, very near it. It’s unclear if we will hike the pass or another route. Our imagery of this part of the Altai Mountains is poor. This stretch of our trip will be a physical test for us – humans and camels.

It’s approximately a 10-mile hike over the pass, and we’ll climb grueling switchbacks to altitudes higher than 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet)—higher even than the glacier.

Peter Strand, a University of Maine Ph.D. student, will be leading the next part of the expedition. We are taking this route so that he can sample boulders in the Takhilt Valley, building on his work in the nearby tributary of Khoton Nuur.

Last year, Pete and his advisor, University of Maine’s Aaron Putnam, were able to sample moraines in this tributary, which they believe date back to the last glacial maximum. The melting glaciers dropped the mammoth trails of rock that make up the moraines like so many pebbles. In the nearby, Tsagaan-Sol valley, they were also able to sample rock deposited by glaciers that is different than the local bedrock.

Putting these pieces together, Pete and Aaron can track the retreat of the glacier from the last maximum to the modern day. In most glacial valleys of the world, this would never be possible, and it’s why our group has traveled so far. “It’s particularly interesting and it’s why we are taking the time to drone this area,” Pete said. Tracing climate change in the past can give clues to what we may be facing with climate change today.

This year, in the Takhilt Valley, Pete is hoping to sample what he believes is a young Holocene moraine. The Holocene marks “modern” times aross the last 10,000 years. With new information from this area, he can compare the climate signals.

Before we hike the pass, we walk the same route down from the glacier into the White River Valley that we traveled a week before. From here, we catch a ride into an adjacent valley, where Gantuaga lives with his family in a ger.      

Gantuaga (our group calls him by his given name, Ganna) is the owner of our rented pack camels. Traditionally here in Mongolia, individuals do not often have family names. People are addressed by their given name, and a person’s full name consists of the name of the person’s father and then their given name, in that order.

Ganna has a wide smile. At Potanin, he took an interest in our drone work, helping us with landings. He even rode his horse in circles around our camp as the Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis practiced using the tracking and video functions.

Ganna’s (second from left) family gathers in their home, a traditional ger made of felt and wood. They are clothed in deels, wool garments common in pastoralist communities here.
Ganna (second from left) and his family gather in their home, a traditional ger made of felt and wood. They are clothed in deels, wool garments common in pastoralist communities here.

The day before our hike over the Takhilt Pass, Ganna invites us to his home for a small feast. His ger is large enough to fit our entire group. We eat fresh cheeses—one is like a hard provolone, one like a fried farmer’s cheese—and rolls. I play a game with four small bones and a felt board.

Manaljav—or as he is called by the group, Manlai—our camp chef, and Ganna’s daughter take turns playing a horse head fiddle. It’s a beautiful sounding instrument, pitches can be easily manipulated.

Ganna passes around bowls of fermented milk and a clear, distilled liquid that translates to the phrase “horse wine.” It’s somewhere within the parentheses of sake or vodka. After a few sips the room seems to take on a new brightness. “It was priceless to be able to share that moment with Ganna and his family,” Scott said. “It was one of my highlights so far.”

We retire, stealing strength for the morning hike over the pass. The next day, we leave mid-morning and walk through a small community of gers—Ganna’s neighbors. Herds of goats, yaks and some horses separate as we move through the foothills. Soon, we are winding up a camel trail surrounded by dwarf birch shrubs.

Ganna leads our hike with the team of camels, packed down with our sampling gear and food. After a short walk, the shrubs are replaced with craggy bedrock. Hours later, we reach a bowl at the base of the summit pass. The trail is a white line in the black bedrock, snaking up to the peak in sharp cuts back and forth.

Before ascending, we break for a lunch of pickles, potatoes, carrots, rice and fresh mutton. The meat is juicy and more flavorful than what we have been eating.

Ganna is already halfway up the switchbacks by the time we finish lunch, whistling and kicking the reluctant camels along. “This reminds me of the Himalaya’s,” Aaron said. “Having to prod the horses up the hill.”

It takes us a slow hour of hiking to reach the peak. Down the backside, we descend into a valley of wild flowers—small onions with purple straw blossoms and chives.

Manlai encourages me to chew on one grass; it’s savory, like a salty celery stick, and it has a flavor similar to the sour grass that’s common in Northern California, citric and sweet. I realize later that it was wild sorrel.

The valley floor is bright with yellow, purple and blue flowers. I recognize more poppies, but these are taller and with different colored petals than the ones I saw on the moraines near Potanin.

And the rock in this valley are darker and more weathered, with thick layers of lichen; Pete tells me there are several reasons for that. The bedrock here is a type of rhyolite, and, as soon as we came over the Takhilt pass, we entered a new climate regime; it’s wet.

“The grasses change,” he said. “There are juniper bushes and other shrubs, and the flowers are a lot bigger.”

The day after hiking the pass, the group separates. Pete leads the science group to sample boulders in an adjacent Takhilt Valley, while others stay back to rest sore knees and wash clothes. I stick around camp to type up my notes and organize my photos.

It rains for most of the day, and I work from my sleeping bag in my tent, taking breaks to eat warm soup and drink hot chocolate. Pete and his team are up higher in the valley, struggling.  The boulders are not right for sampling. “The morphology is beautiful,” Aaron said. “But the glacier just wasn’t good to us. It didn’t leave anything of use behind.”

University of Maine’s Peter Strand recording information about a boulder. He is writing on a canvas sample bag with a permanent marker—if digital records fail, this information will be important.
University of Maine’s Peter Strand recording information about a boulder. He is writing on a canvas sample bag with a permanent marker—if digital records fail, this information will be important.

At that elevation, it’s sleeting and starting to snow. “It’s the most dangerous condition,” Aaron would tell me later. “It’s the perfect condition for someone to become hypothermic.” If the temperature were a few degrees cooler, it would snow and the group wouldn’t be so wet, though.

Fortunately, no one freezes. We eat a dinner of slow boiled lamb and rice, flavored with barbecue sauce. The next morning, the rain comes in waves. Pete finds a glacial moraine close to our camp and we sample for near the entire day—breaking only when the rain is coming down in thick sheets.

“We did pretty well,” Pete said. With the samples he collected on our last day in this valley, “we will be able to tell when the snow-line rose to roughly the Little Ice Age (1300-1850 A.D.) and we found a moraine ridge.” Samples from the ridge will illuminate when the glacier’s ablation zone equaled the accumulation zone—when it was at a state of equilibrium.

Soon, we’ll be leaving the area around the Takhilt Valley, so beautiful with it’s wildflowers. Still, I’m looking forward to entering the Khoton Nuur tributary, where the landscape is wide open. We will also find the Tsagaan-Sol Gol, a different river that flows white with glacial silt. Aaron tells me that the rivers are teaming with Mongolian Grayling, which make a nice meal and an alternative to boiled lamb.

I can tell that Aaron is looking forward to this valley, for the fishing, but also for the science. Peter sampled the moraines in this tributary valley extensively last year, but he would like better images to produce quality maps. We’ll spend several days collecting images with the drone.

“This holds the secret to abrupt climate change,” Aaron said, only half joking. This tributary valley is important, and it could hold a key piece of information. Information that could help solve the mystery of the demise of the last great Ice Age.

I learned these important life lessons in the Altai Mountains

By Destiny Washington

The group leaves camp early in the morning just as rain is descending down the valley (Kevin Stark/Medill).
The group leaves camp early in the morning just as rain is descending down the valley (Kevin Stark/Medill).


Over the past weeks in the Altai mountains of Western Mongolia, I have been camped at the Potanin Glacier and the Khoton Nuur Valley. I have learned some very important life lessons. They include:

–Avoid stepping on wet stones in rivers. You will slip and fall.

–The best way to prevent blisters is to bandage them as they first form.

But I have also learned how the location of the rock can tell us about the movement of the glacier. University of Maine’s Aaron Putnam is the head scientist for our trip and he explained this to me in great detail.

Some granite rocks contain quartz and that is needed to perform the surface exposure dating. Some rocks fall off the glacier earlier than the glacier can form a moraine, the ridge of rocks left behind as the glacier retreats.  The boulders that fell away from the moraine are erratic and raise the question of whether they are older or younger than the moraine.

It would be impossible to tell by physically examining the rock because boulders change over time., Some develop lichen while others don’t develop as much lichen. The development of these features don’t define the age, but it defines the activity of the boulder. Lichen develops on inactive rocks – the ones that stay in place. The only way that we can determine the age is by taking samples of the quartz in the boulders and in the moraines.

I’ve made progress on my part of the expedition by successfully completing my GPS mapping. I was given a trimble—a device for finding GPS coordinates—and Mariah Radue, a graduate student at the University of Maine, taught me how to use it. We collected points as we walked in five meter intervals. We did that along the visible part of the moraine at the on the unit the Potanin Glacier.

For sampling, we examined the boulder first. We had to see if it had the important qualities for sampling. Did it have a smooth polished surface? Did it have a quartz vein? That’s what we looked for. Then we took a rock hammer drill, and I would drill a few holes at an angle in order to take the sample using a hammer, wedges, and shims. I’d hammer the wedges in until the rock came loose. If you hit it the right way, the boulder made a nice cracking noise, like you are breaking a stick. It was oddly satisfying.

What I find most interesting is the process by which the boulders came to rest in their current location, due to the glacier. A boulder can be dropped off by a glacier, and the glacier could stop melting around the time it drops the boulder. This can change the landscape. When the glacier drops the boulder, the timing can determine if the boulder falls on the moraine or off the moraine. And we can use this information to determine the age of both the boulder and the moraine. It’s interesting to think about how the landscape changed.

All of these lessons will stick with me for a very long time, and I think they’ll make it easier to explain my results in my presentation. Now, the idea of what we are doing is really sticking to my head. I can explain why the boulder might have a different age from the moraine. Also, the the next time I go to the wilderness, I’ll know not to step on wet stones or other places that could accidently hurt me.

My adventurous student can tackle the glaciers – but please hold the dried curd

By Jessica Stevens

Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington (yellow jacket) was chosen by her environmental science teacher Jessica Stevens (purple jacket) to participate in the Mongolian expedition. University of Maine’s Nathan Norris cleans pulverized dust from a granite boulder after drilling holes to extract a sample. (Kevin Stark/Medill)
Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington (yellow jacket) was chosen by her environmental science teacher Jessica Stevens (purple jacket) to participate in the Mongolian expedition. University of Maine’s Nathan Norris cleans pulverized dust from a granite boulder after drilling holes to extract a sample. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

Destiny Washington knows how to handle a trip to Mongolia. She is a 17-year old student at Gary Comer College Prep where I’m an environmental science teacher. I was asked last spring to choose a junior to accompany me on a research trip to Mongolia. She’s been eating new foods without complaint — sour cabbage, yogurt, even lamb’s tongue, cheek and ear. She said no to the dried curd (“My stomach didn’t want to eat dried curd,” she said) and a few other foods. She made the most hysterical faces and politely said, “I don’t think that’s for me.”

Taking this trip with a resilient and adventurous student of mine has made the journey so much more enjoyable for me. The most difficult challenge that we have put to Destiny is a 10-mile hike — at an elevation of 10,000 feet — at the site of the Potanin Glacier. We learned how to check for blisters and breathe at high altitude—the Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis told us to exhale deeply, to exit all of the carbon dioxide from our lungs and create space for more oxygen. I knew that this was hard on Destiny. “It was terribly long,” she said “I didn’t know where anything was.” Still, she seemed to have fun with it.

How did we end up here? Last March, I had a meeting with the principal of our high school, Estee Kelly, about my position for the next year. I would have been happy to know that I was teaching environmental science for another year, but Ms. Kelly asked me if I would take a Comer Student to do climate change research in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia.

Destiny Washington has been drawing glacial landscapes as part of her field work.
Destiny Washington has been drawing glacial landscapes as part of her field work (Kevin Stark/Medill).

I knew that this experience would change one scholar’s life for the better—I know from experience that traveling encourages personal growth, and getting to perform scientific research in high school could provide a student with the drive to pursue science as a profession, to do great things. I picked Destiny Washington. She has great potential and was interested in completing her own project—she will investigate the differences in the amount of time it took a glacier to retreat in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia during different periods in history. She will test the role that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have played on the melting glaciers.

The trip leader and head scientist Aaron Putnam has been helping Destiny with this project. I first met Aaron a month after I learned about the Mongolia trip. The administration asked if I would allow a guest speaker.  I was hesitant, considering my fourth-period class had a lot of big personalities, but I agreed.

Teachers at Gary Comer College Prep are busy, and so no one told me exactly who the speaker would be. It was Aaron, the leader for our Mongolia trip, as I found out in my meeting with him after class. My class was so caught up by Aaron’s enthusiasm. He had them pass around a 24,000-year-old piece of wood and talked about glaciers. My class asked questions that made me proud.

Aaron’s been great with Destiny on this trip, too. He asked her questions about the formation of the landscape and helped her form well-crafted scientific answers. She had the opportunity to ride a horse for the first time. We were crossing a stream and she tasted fresh meltwater from a glacial stream. “It was fun,” she said.

The proud smile on Destiny’s face when we finally made it to the glacier made the trip more than worth it for me. “I definitely felt a sense of accomplishment,” Destiny said.

She did all of this with good humor and without complaint; well except about the flies. Destiny really hates the flies.


Coming face-to-face with the Potanin Glacier

By Kevin Stark

Lead scientist Aaron Putnam guides a drone in for a safe landing. The Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis documents the event in a photo. The two were instrumental in troubleshooting the drone for scientific purposes. (Kevin Stark / Medill)
Lead scientist Aaron Putnam guides a drone in for a safe landing. The Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis documents the event in a photo.  (Kevin Stark / Medill)

July 13, 2016. It’s a day’s hike up the Tsagaan Gol Valley to the Potanin Glacier, journeying roughly 10 miles along a horse trail. Our guides ride horses, along with Mariah Radue, a graduate student at the University of Maine. She is comfortable on horseback from years of riding. “The horses are sure-footed,” she said.

The camels are loaded with drones, drills, bags of potatoes and rice, and backpacks. Camels can carry twice as much weight as a horse, up to 660 pounds. But it’s slow hiking—the trail is steep and we are adjusting to a higher elevation—even with the camels carrying most of the gear. We stop for a lunch of sardines, tuna and bread by a stream.

Mariah will be leading the field expedition for the next week. She will be analyzing the granite samples collected from this part of the trip for her graduate work. “The Tsagaan Gol Valley gives us another example of deglaciation from the last glacial maximum (18,500 years ago) to pre-industrial times,” she says.

After hiking most of the day, we reach a pass between two mountains and come face to face with Potanin. From the perspective of Mariah and glacial geologist Aaron Putnam, her advisor, this is a rare opportunity. The valley is a nexus of geologic formations. Thousands of years ago it was completely covered in ice—there are several moraines of rock that formed thousands of years apart as the glacier retreated and discarded huge ridges of boulders in its wake.

Glacial meltwater carved this cave into the Potanin Glacier. The caves can be dangerous in the summer months when ice can break off without warning. (Kevin Stark / Medill)
Glacial meltwater carved this cave into the Potanin Glacier. The caves can be dangerous in the summer months when ice can break off without warning. (Kevin Stark / Medill)

It’s likely that one moraine formed during the Holocene (the last 10,000 years), another during the Little Ice Age (from 1300-1850), and both are positioned right next to current glaciers—at least, that’s what Mariah and Aaron suspect. The contrast is remarkable.

“It’s glacial geologist eye-candy,” Mariah says. “We are dating the moraine in a setting where the information is wonderfully preserved.” Mariah will take granite samples back to the University of Maine and apply the beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating technique to determine how long ago the rocks broke free from the retreating ice and were deposited here. Beryllium-10 collects in rock exposed to air due to cosmic rays bombarding Earth’s atmosphere.

The oldest moraine is grassed over and has been rounded into a rolling hill by thousands of years of rain and wind. The younger moraines are jagged, comprised of granite boulders, rocks, and cement-hard glacial silt, with little vegetation.

University of Maine graduate student Mariah Radue is sampling boulders near the Potanin Glacier in the Altai Mountains. (Kevin Stark / Medill)


Our campsite is a short hike from the glacier. We are camping at an altitude higher than 3,000 meters (9,843 feet).

Thankfully, the drone is fully functional—in large part as a result of patient troubleshooting by the Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis. Each morning is spent capturing images of the valley, which Mariah will transform into high-resolution maps.

“The pictures tell the story of the glacial history of this valley,” Mariah said. “There is so much value in understanding a complex landscape from the air. You can pick out patterns that you cannot see from the ground.”

Thin blue rivers flow along the face of the glacier and there are only a few peaks that are still covered in snow from winter. One day, I scramble down to a tongue of the glacier, at the base of the young moraine.  Granite is piled all around me. Much of it has been cemented into place by glacial silt. In the tongue, I can see there is an ice cave forming, but it’s getting late, so I decide to come back the next day to shoot photos.

When I go back, dark storm clouds are forming in the distance. A few times I step in the wet silt, sinking up to my shin in the gray sludge. The puddles are the glacial equivalent of quicksand, so I try to walk only on the hard granite rocks.

I shoot a few gray photos. Then I’m back in camp in time to have a cup of coffee and hole up in my tent, the thunder clapping above. I plan a pre-dawn adventure to take photos with the morning sun shining into the cave.

Meanwhile, Aaron, Mariah and Scott are flying the drone each morning. Aaron is releasing and catching it, his coffee thermos resting uncertainly on a granite rock at his feet. After breakfast and droning, the group spends the rest of the day sampling rocks.

Mariah is getting great images and samples. By the end of our week, she’ll have more than 40 pieces of granite to analyze. “There is a specific order that things need to be done,” Mariah says. The group is getting into a rhythm. “When one person is done drilling, the next person is on the rock with a GPS.” Mapping the retreat of the glaciers from this composite of data means filling in the clues to where our climate is heading today and how fast it can change.

On one of our last mornings, I get up at half-past five in the morning to get photos of the cave. I eat a quick breakfast of dry cereal out of a pink plastic mug and drink coffee on the way to filter water from a runoff stream. My tent is covered with a sheet of frost, and my wet hiking socks are frozen enough to clap together.

I reach the tongue in time to see the sun slowly descending down an auditorium of ice. It’s cold. My cell phone camera won’t take photos until I warm it up inside my wool gloves tucked under my arm.

Despite the cold, as soon as the sun hits the glacier, small rivers of water start dripping off the ice. During the thunderstorm, rain cracked off a slice of the glacier and the entrance of the cave is partially blocked by a hunk of ice. I’m happy that I wasn’t under the wedge. I take a breath and move on to shoot photos of the melt river before joining the group for morning droning.

As we prepare to hike back down to the Tsagaan Gol Valley, the group is in high spirits.  We’ll re-supply before hiking into an adjacent valley for more sampling. Mariah’s week at the Potanin Glacier was incredibly productive, and she’ll spend the next two years analyzing rocks collected from these moraines.


By Destiny Washington

Traveling from the United States to China to Mongolia was exhausting. Between emotional exhaustion from saying goodbye to my parents—Valerie Washington and Byron West—and the physical exhaustion from flying for two days, I was extremely tired. It felt like I was in a permanent state of not knowing what time it was and wanting to sleep. Like, a lot.

But arriving in Mongolia has been a great experience. Especially since my team is full of interesting and funny people. They encourage questions and are willing to listen to any problem — and there are a lot —  bothering people. They also take care of one another and worry about each other.

For example, on the drive to the Altai Mountains, Peter Strand (he’s a leader on this trip and a Ph.D. student from University of Maine) asked us to consider how the landscape formed in Mongolia. This was a hard question. I didn’t know but I made a guess.  We saw sand dunes and I thought they might have formed from overgrazing cows and horses and other livestock. We never established a full answer, but this question framed our thinking for the trip.

I haven’t had the chance to study environmental science. I am unaware of a lot of the rock formations and what they mean for the environment, but Aaron Putnam, the lead scientist for the expedition, has studied Earth Science. I spent a lot of time with him in the car and he taught me quite about the rocks and their formations.

We were passing rocks near a volcano. He pointed them out and gave them the names Pahoehoe and A’A. They were Hawaiian names for volcanic rock. A’A rocks form a jagged point and jut up into the sky because of how they were formed. Pahoehoe is a flatter rock, which suggests that the magma cooled over the land and didn’t crack and break.

I’m expecting to learn how long it took the glacier to retreat in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia. I want to test the relationship that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have to the melting glaciers. Scientists link CO2 levels, global temperature rise and the glaciers – one theory is that the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the faster the glacier will recede. To test this myself, I will track the glacier starting at the glacial maximum of the last Ice Age (roughly 18,000 years ago) using GPS mapping.  The mapping will track the rate of recession over time. I’ll be sampling granite boulders found in the glacial moraines. The boulders were left by a retreating glacier and they are the best way to track the age of the glacier.

I am nervous because I’ll have to present the findings of this expedition in San Francisco at the American Geophysical Union conference later this year. The reason I’m nervous is that I don’t know a lot about what I’m presenting. Yet. So, I’m picking up important details of what I need to cover in the presentation. How do I talk about this without making it seem like it’s final? And, how do I explain why we study the boulders that we selected? I want to present the findings in the best light that I can. Even though I’m new at this, I know it’s extremely important to document climate change.

I’m glad that I’m here. This expedition is fun, and I’m excited to be part of it. I was worried that the scientists would be stuck-up, but they are actually pretty hilarious. Everyone is funny in their own way. With this team, this expedition will be a breeze or at least a fun Sudoku puzzle—challenging but rewarding. Either way, it will be a great trip with plenty of samples that will hopefully tell us the rate of recession of the glacier.


By Kevin Stark

Oyungerel Sambuu, a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, drills into a granite boulder for samples to trace the retreat of a glacier. The Potananin Glacier is visible in the distance. (Kevin Stark / Medill)
Purevdorj Purev-Ochir, a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, drills into a granite boulder for samples to trace the retreat of a glacier. The Potananin Glacier is visible in the distance. (Kevin Stark / Medill)

Wednesday, July 6 – After several days of driving, we arrive at Tsagaan Gol, spend the night and prepare for our first field day. University of Maine’s Aaron Putnam and his team of graduate researchers will be reconstructing the history of Potanin glacier, just up the valley. They’ll be uncovering clues as to what caused the abrupt climate event that led to massive glacial melting at the end of the last ice age.

It’s our first day in Mongolia’s Altai mountains. We eat lamb stew and drink coffee as the sun warms our campsite. We are expecting seven camels and two horses to arrive. They will assist the 12 of us across rugged mountain trails.  We all rode camels at a rest stop on our cross-Mongolia road trip, but we will be using the animals now to carry gear, not people.

Our first leg should take two weeks—our plan is to hike to the Potanin glacier from the river valley in the Altai Tavand Bogd National Park. The water in this valley is milky white from run-off. Glaciers pulverize rock into a powder so fine that it’s suspended in the river water, and it doesn’t settle to the riverbed like sand. That’s why the water looks so milky. It’s beautiful. I drink coffee listening to the quiet roar of the river below.

By 9:30, the camels have not arrived and Aaron and Peter Strand are looking down the valley pensively. A delay now could eat away precious time for sampling, and the weather forecast for tomorrow is predicting hail and rain. While we’re waiting, Peter and Aaron give a workshop on collecting high resolution GPS data. Satellites drift, which can lead to imprecise field data. So the team establishes a base station that will constantly take readings for correcting the data later.

By 11 a.m., still no camels. Pete makes the call to salvage the afternoon and sample the moraine ridges down valley from our campsite. We’ve lost half a day and we’ll likely lose more time to the storm tomorrow. Aaron tells me this is the standard, not an exception. “I just try and relax,” Aaron said. So much is out of our control. We finish lunch, and prepare to leave when then our camels appear on the horizon. It’s too late for us to pack and hike for the glacier, so the team settles for half a day of sampling in the valley.

To determine how the glacier has fluctuated in the past, Aaron and Pete will map glacial moraines, ridges of rock debris discarded by a glacier. The rocks were left behind after the glacier retreated — just when that happened is a question they seek to answer. The moraine ridges we will be hiking over are the edges of where massive chunks of ice vaulted skyward when the climate was colder thousands of years ago.

Researchers like Pete and Aaron collect surface layer samples from polished granite boulders to discern the age of the moraines. They apply an isotopic method called beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating. The granite rocks we will be sampling—some as large as the largest American SUV—were once suspended in ice. The glacial ice melted and deposited the rock on the ridge. At that moment, the granite became exposed to a flux of particles created when cosmic rays from outer space collide with Earth’s atmosphere. The particles bombard the rock and affect oxygen and silicon in quartz, creating a cosmogenic byproduct called beryllium-10. These atoms accumulate in the rock surface and can be measured to determine how long ago the boulder was freed from the ice and dropped on the land.

Pete drills into the top of a boulder with a rock drill. He places wedges into the holes and methodically hammers them into the granite. Each hammer swing chimes with a pitch higher than the last. “It’s like playing a musical instrument,” Pete said. The rock begins to crack and soon he pulls away a plate-sized section of rock. Each sample is roughly 500 grams and 2 centimeters thick.

As Pete drills away, Aaron tells me that the wedging is “iron age technology.”

“It dates back to the Romans if not earlier,” he said.

The rock samples will be sent back to the University of Maine. “That is where they will be tortured,” Aaron jokes. They will undergo chemical processing by Aaron and others. Once dated, these samples can reconstruct glacier movement and the researchers can draw inferences about how Mongolia’s glaciers changed at the end of the Ice Age, generally. Reconstructing past climate change gives us clues to the pace of climate change occurring now.

Pete is leading the workshops today. It’s what Aaron calls the “cascade model” of education.  He taught Pete. Now Pete is teaching University of Maine students Mariah Radue and Nathan Norris. Soon, they will be teachers to other students.

We hike to the top of another moraine. It’s hard hiking, straight up with no trails. Large granite boulders jut out of the ground amid bedrock. We sample that moraine, before a smaller group splits off to hike higher, up to roughly 2,760 meters in elevation. The air is thin.

Up high, it’s quiet except for a few birds chirping and the slow rumble of the white river in the valley below. I have a direct line of site into the to Potananin glacier. A band of sunlight is gleaming off the ice. That is our destination and our home for the next two weeks, if the weather and everything else allows us access.


By Kevin Stark

Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington celebrating at the top of a volcano peak in the Khangai region. “We’ve passed a lot of landscapes, you can see how the country is divided,” Destiny said. (Kevin Stark/Medill)
Gary Comer College Prep’s Destiny Washington celebrating at the top of a volcano peak in the Khangai region. “We’ve passed a lot of landscapes, you can see how the country is divided,” Destiny said. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

July 1—July 4. After days of organizing, we are ready to leave the city of Ulaanbaatar.

Our caravan will drive for the next four days, covering more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) on paved roads when we’re lucky, but mainly on gravel, dirt and even sand. We are planning our average speed at 10.3 miles per hour, with a maximum speed 75miles per hour.

At one point, we’ll climb to an elevation of 8,300 feet.

Driving out of UB, the traffic flows in interweaving strands of Hyundai vans, large tourist buses, and small cars. We pass neighborhoods with colorful gray, red and blue homes, piles of coal, and a shipping container that had been turned into a restaurant. Soon we’ve left the city, driving through the open steppe, a high-elevation grassland stretching from UB to the Altai mountains in Western Mongolia.

Ninjin Tsolmon and Purevdorj Purev-Ochir, two students from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, have joined us and we are guided by Boldoo, Khurola, Tsooboo, Tumur, and Manlai from Hovsgol Travel, a Mongolian fly fishing and travel company.

Ph.D. student Peter Strand poses an observational question for the students to consider during the days of travel. Why do the landscapes look the way that they do? The countryside is defined by rolling hills and peaks that have been rounded by years of rain and wind. In some places, there are sand dunes, and we visit a dormant volcano. “There is evidence that the environment has changed in the past, and water is the main theme,” Aaron Putnam says.

The group is constructing a story of past climate, a history of the landscape. Without this story, we are lost in a world as vast as the wide open steppe. “What’s your story?” Rebecca Solnit asks in her book “The Faraway Nearby.” She writes, “It’s all in the telling.”

There is plenty of time for storytelling on this long drive. Putnam and Strand’s interest in the demise of the last Ice Age is in part to inform our understanding of the story of human-driven climate change now. The Comer Foundation’s Scott Travis tells me that he has been telling and retelling this story for two decades. “I feel responsible for the world I’m leaving for the next generation,” he says.

Black kites, a predatory bird with a five-foot wingspan, glide above our car. Not far out of UB, we pass a marathon in progress, and a runner descends a hill and runs past a dozen horses. We drive for most of the day, taking a break to ride camels.

Gary Comer College Prep student Destiny Washington rides in the back seat of a black truck. “The drive was bumpy and exhausting, at some points,” she says. But Aaron was in the front seat narrating the journey with geological descriptions of the landscape. It was like “having the Discovery channel in the car,” Destiny says.

After driving for many hours across the flat and grassy steppe, we pull off the road at the site of a wide canyon. It reminds me of the Snake River in Idaho, a giant gash in the ground that seems to appear out of nothing. It reminds me of a summer I spent in central Idaho leading backpacking trips and hitchhiking during my time off. Now, as then, we sleep where we’d like, pulling off the road and setting up our tents along a creek or lakeshore.

For breakfast one morning we eat hard-boiled eggs and biscuits, ready to get underway. But our van stalls in the parking lot, making a bleating sound similar to the cows that had been grazing around our tents at night. We have a loose distributor, which bent a connecting rod. Tsooboo, from Hovsgol Travel, has a new one and a lift rod in the truck and makes the necessary repairs in a matter of hours. “That’s amazing,” Scott Travis says.

The group’s caravan is made up of three sport utility vehicles and a van loaded with food and supplies. (Kevin Stark/Medill)
The group’s caravan is made up of three sport utility vehicles and a van loaded with food and supplies. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

The group waits in the parking lot eating chocolate pastries and drinking water out of plastic bottles during the repair. Later in the day we stop for a lunch of noodles and pickled vegetables. Scott and Aaron work on flying the drone—an important piece of the program for mapping glacial moraines and providing high-quality images of our field sites. Google Earth has really poor pictures of these places.

The drone has been frustrating and, so far, not functional. Scott struggles with it under the poplar tree. He practiced flying a different one at his home in Wisconsin. That drone entered an automatic flight pattern triggered by a low battery and flew itself into a different poplar tree—prompting an expensive run to the store to purchase the drone we are using now. (Days later, we solve the drone problem to everyone’s relief.)

We leave, and the paved road ends, and the new dirt road soon splits into several different paths, all crossing back and forth. Sheep are sleeping and, Erdenee Erdenekhuu, the driver of my truck, honks a few times and they get up slowly and saunter away.

The trucks jockey for the lead, raising a cloud of dust and sand behind us. Khuraa, a driver of one of the other trucks, hits a rut and blows a tire. Fortunately, we have ample spares and it’s a quick fix.

Later that afternoon, we stop at a park in the Khangai region, the site of a mid-continental volcano. It’s a fresh looking landscape, with new geologic formations in the midst of older mountains.  There are yellow, purple and white clusters of flowers.

“Lava flows contain some of the most fertile land in the world,” says University of Maine student Nathan Norris, hiking by large vesicular basalt boulders.

The morning of our last day’s drive, we wake up at Hyargas Nuur. The water is salty and I can taste it as I wash my face. For breakfast, we have sardines, sesame biscuits and coffee with real milk. We drive for most of the day. Suddenly, the Altai Mountains come into view. “It’s like coming across the plains and then there are the Rockies,” Scott says.

The final stretch of our drive is along a river valley – mountain peaks on our right and elm, spruce, and poplar trees lining the Houd River on our left. In the distance, glaciers are on top of black mountains, our destination and home for the next month.


By Kevin Stark

Kevin Stark and Scott Travis having breakfast on the first morning outside of Ulaanbaatar. Instant coffee and biscuits are a staple of the mornings on the road. (Destiny Washington/Gary Comer College Prep)
Kevin Stark and Scott Travis at breakfast on the first morning outside of Ulaanbaatar. Instant coffee and biscuits are a staple of mornings on the road. (Destiny Washington/Gary Comer College Prep)

June 30, 2016 – Our journey for a summer of climate change research in the Altai Mountains – where Russia, China and Mongolia all meet – began as our plane descended into the Chinggis Kahn Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Looking out the airplane window, I saw a cluster of ger—traditional homes made of wood and felt—located on the outer ring of the city. The majority of UB’s residents live in this expanding district where many of hundreds of thousands of people have left Mongolia’s degraded grassland.

In the past century, Mongolia’s temperature has increased more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), twice the global average. Once vast grazing lands are drying up and threatening the country with drought. Many people are fleeing the rural areas, where they have lived for generations to find work in the city.

The expanding ger district is a symptom, in part, of today’s warming climate – a telescope into the complicated intersection of cultural and environmental challenges other large cities may face in the coming decades as human-related climate change continues warming at an unprecedented rate.

It’s a fitting image for our trip. Our group is beginning a collaborative, intergenerational scientific and educational effort to examine links among climate, glaciers and modern society in the Bayan-Ölgii Province of Western Mongolia. University of Maine’s Aaron Putnam leads this expedition, and he has assembled a team of young scientists, students, climate research assistants and guides. Everyone is gathered to study the demise of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

Destiny Washington at an open air market in Ulaanbaatar where the group purchased cookware and other supplies for the trip. (Kevin Stark/Medill)
Destiny Washington at an open air market in Ulaanbaatar where the group purchased cookware and other supplies for the trip. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

Aaron was awarded an early career development grant from the National Science Foundation to use surface-exposure and radiocarbon dating techniques to develop a chronology of glacial retreat during the “most important natural warming event in human history,” approximately 18,000 years ago. The warming abruptly ended the last ice age and Putnam is looking for the switches that cause such climate events. Aaron and his team can detect how and why climate has changed in the past by reconstructing the geologic record found in the ancient rocks of the mountains. In doing so, he hopes to have a better understanding of how our climate is changing today.

I’m embedded as a reporter chronicling the trip to complete my graduate journalism degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I’m here along with Destiny Washington, a 17-year old high school student,  selected from among her peers at Chicago’s Gary Comer College Prep to be included in this experience. This is her first time out of the country. “It has been an exciting blur of sleeping and being awake,” she said. “I’m just trying to take it all in. The air, the buildings and structures.”

Destiny’s environmental science teacher Jessica Stevens is with us too, and we assembled in the airport in Chicago and spent nearly two days traveling to Mongolia by way of Beijing. “Going through customs was really different,” Destiny said.

“That was the first time I’ve actually seen you hate something – like I could see it on your face,” Stevens said.

“My brain was like, this is too much,” Destiny said with a laugh.

Destiny and I will be documenting this trip from the field on the pages of this blog, primarily. But there will be contributions to our coverage as well from Stevens and University of Maine students Peter Strand, Mariah Radue, and Nathan Norris.

Strand is a Ph.D. student—he and Aaron will be leading the scientific study. Putnam likes to say that glaciers are great thermometers. As climate cools and warms, glaciers recede and advance leaving evidence on the landscape in the form of moraines—a glacial “wake” formed with granite boulders that glaciers move around like pebbles.

A thunderstorm delayed the group’s red-eye flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (Kevin Stark/Medill).
A thunderstorm delayed the group’s red-eye flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (Kevin Stark/Medill).

David Putnam, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Aaron Putnam’s dad, is with us for the first leg of the journey but will be separating to join a different research team. David is incredibly knowledgeable and has spent his career working in the field – with the stories you might expect from years traversing glaciers. Everyone is a little disappointed that he’s leaving. (I think he might be too). “You’ll have fun with your new group,” Destiny reassured him.

The group has come together over the last few days in UB. I’ve learned that the field work glaciologists love to pursue is a small percentage of the effort. If our trip were a pie chart, one large slice would read logistics, and another would read unexpected delays. “Science is 99 percent unrelenting work and 1 percent fun; but that 1 percent makes it worth it,” Aaron said.

Which is where Scott Travis comes in handy. He works for the Comer Foundation,which has helped make it possible for us to be here. Scott has played a key role as a climate research assistant on trips to Greenland, New Zealand, Patagonia and Bhutan (several with Aaron).

At this point in the trip, we’ve had several delayed flights, missing bags and a kidnapped drone that was confiscated by security at the Beijing airport. At one point—minutes before our flight was supposed to depart from China to Mongolia—a thunderstorm delayed our red-eye flight for another five hours. “It’s a good thing we rushed through security,” Aaron said.

But that has passed, and as I write this, we are preparing for a morning departure.

Over the next few weeks, our expedition team will travel to the isolated landscape of the Altai Mountains. This range is a petri dish from which to study the position of these former ice tongues.

Photo at top: University of Maine’s Aaron Putnam reviews a road map by headlamp on the group’s first night in camp in Mongolia. (Kevin Stark/Medill)


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