Thirty seconds seems like an incredibly short amount of time. But a lot of things can happen in thirty seconds. I had removed one of my gloves to turn the page in my field notebook to jot down some measurements on the coal we were sampling.
It was a bad idea.
In that short amount of time, my fingers went numb, stiff and void of feeling. It was -16ºC and although there was only a slight breeze, any warmth clinging to skin was swiftly spirited away. I put my glove back on. Thirty minutes passed before fingers functioned as before.
We were at the Yimin coal mine in northeastern Inner Mongolia, China to get some samples to study the plant types and carbon isotopes found in the ancient peat mire. Our previous research had shown that the 35 m thick coal had particular organic composition. Firstly, it was full of highly oxidized plant material, possibly of fire origin but not necessarily so. Secondly, the coal had not been buried very deeply, which is unusual as the peat accumulated during the Cretaceous period (and thus over 60 million years old).
At the mine we could see large pieces of burned wood. The samples we collected will be analyzed for ∂13C and for the spores and pollen content and this will tell us what
sort of climate the Cretaceous peat formed within at this particular area of the Earth.
Getting those samples over three days was not easy. My colleagues, Dr Marvin Moroeng (University of Johannesburg), Dr Jingjing Liu (China University of Mining and Technology [CUMT]) and field assistants Mr Rongkun Jia, Mr Kun Chen (both from CUMT) and Ms Aretha Christie (Cipher) ensured the extreme conditions did not inhibit getting good samples. Our host while in Inner Mongolia
was Mr Zhang, who is the Departmental Head for the Inner Mongolian Coal Geological Survey. Without his help, hard work and infectious good humor we might have succumbed to the cold!