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Anyui - Volcanoes, Climate and the Peopling of the Americas

 

A pilot study in the summer of 2019

We performed ambitious fieldwork on and documentation of the little-known Anyui volcano (Fig. 1) in northeast Siberia with the long-term aim of reconstructing its eruption activity and to investigate possible effects on climate variation, mammoth extinction and human migration at the crossroads between Eurasia and the Americas. Our transdisciplinary journey to the epistemology of climate variability and human history is expected to generate novel scientific insights and footage for unconventional aesthetic filmmaking.

 
 

Background

Climate change has played a fundamental role in human history, and volcanic eruptions represent the main natural forcing of climate. Numerous eruptions of the past have impacted pastoral environments and agricultural systems to the extent that they have triggered major societal transformations1. Before the era of meteorological measurements, our best records of climate variability, dating back thousands of years are derived from tree rings2. Thanks to their annual dating, tree-ring chronologies are also yielding, for the first time, accurate dates of some major medieval volcanic eruptions3,4.

One region of the Earth where tree-ring evidence is critically missing is northeast Siberia. Roughly between 28,000 and 18,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age, when sea-level was lower than today, northeast Siberia and northwest North America was ice-free and connected by a land bridge. This corridor between Chukotka and Alaska, called “Beringia” (Fig. 2), may have served as a biological refuge5,6, from which plants, animals and humans most likely colonized the Americas7,8. Climate and environmental change in Beringia is also central to understanding the extinction of the woolly mammoth and other megafaunas9,10.

 

Motivation

Despite its remarkable 56 km-long lava flow, Anyui volcano was only discovered in aerial photographs in 1952. Indeed, due to challenging logistics, much of Chukotka remains terra incognita to science11. Superficially, Anyui’s last eruption appears very recent, though estimates of its age are contradictory12,13. Moreover, no ash from the volcano has been found in the sediments of Lake El’gygytgyn14 nor in Greenland ice cores15.

We believe Anyui holds an exceptionally rich and well-preserved archive of recent and relict trees, including those killed by the last eruption, that can reveal the first detailed record of past climatic variation for this extremely remote region, potentially stretching back more than 10,000 years. We also speculate that the eruption was witnessed by human populations and that there may be archaeological and faunal remains, both from before and after the eruption

Scientific motivation:

  • What is the eruptive history of Anyui volcano, and why does volcanism occur in this region, far from the tectonic plate boundary?
  • How did Anyui’s eruptions affect local to larger-scale ecology, hydrology, climate and human populations?
  • What can Beringia’s environmental history tell us about megafaunal extinction and the colonisation of America?
     

Artistic motivation:

  • What can an artist’s approach contribute to the methodologies in the field?
  • How will the transdisciplinary field trip influence the artists methodology and artistic production?
  • How does the transdisciplinary character of the field trip push the boundaries of epistemic and aesthetic outcomes?

Project details

Project duration

2019 - 2028

Project lead

Prof. Dr. Ulf Büntgen

Deputy

Prof. Dr. Andreas Rigling

 

Scientific Approach

In late August and early September 2019, we undertook the first interdisciplinary and international pilot mission to Anyui volcano, where we sampled living and dead larch trees (Fig. 3; Larix cajanderi Mayr) using increment corers and chain saws. During our pilot expedition, we used helicopter support (based out of the settlement of Kiperveem about 60 km distant) to reach the volcano and to relocate between temporary field camps on the lava flow field along a roughly 1000 m elevation gradient (Fig. 4).

Subsequent laboratory analyses of tree-ring width, wood density and chemistry at annual resolution are still ongoing. Their outcome is expected to provide rich insights into past summer temperature variability at the world’s most eastern (northern/upper) treeline. Although it is possible that ring widths together with high-resolution radiocarbon (14C) measurements will yield precise dates of Anyui’s most recent eruptions, we also collected a suite of rock samples for radiometric dating.

The petrology and geochemistry of these rocks will further be investigated to improve understanding of the enigmatic origins of volcanism in this region. Through integration of paleoenvironmental and geological research, we are planning to elucidate Anyui’s eruption history and its impacts on ecology and human populations.

Our pilot expedition and first analytical work steps involve close collaboration with Russian colleagues from universities and institutes in Krasnoyarsk, Magadan, Moscow and Yakutsk. Moreover, this pilot project draws on expertise in archaeology, biology, climatology, ecology, ethnology, history, limnology and volcanology. Our new discoveries concerning volcanic activity, climate variability and human history, that is exclusive to northeastern Siberia, will – at a later stage – be published in leading international scientific journals.

 

Artistic Approach

We are in the process of building an ambitious collaboration at the nexus between natural sciences, arts and humanities, and more specifically between nature and visual culture resulting in a documentary film. Inspired by the work of Werner Herzog (e.g. Happy people and Into the Inferno), footage will cover all aspects of the expedition.

With high-end production values, our film project will tell the story of Beringia and the fascinating relationships between people and environment at a critical moment in the human colonisation of the New World. The film’s narrative will weave in the culture and economy of indigenous peoples living in the area today, and will resonate with the issues of socio-political transformation, past, present, future.

Further public engagement and outreach, both in the Western Hemisphere and Russia, will be achieved through Claudia Comte, an artist in residence, who will join currently proposed future expeditions to capture a multitude of ethnological and environmental aspects of the project.

 

Political Implications

Our scientific findings and documentary filmmaking will inspire a wider public fascinated by human and climate history, and increasingly concerned with future environmental change. The project is particularly timely in the context of the global climate change debate, because of the limited paleoenvironmental constraints for northeastern Siberia16,17, and in a phase when diplomatic channels between the West Hemisphere and Russia are narrowing18.

 

Further Information