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Setting-up new collaborations with geoscientists from Kazakhstan

A map of Kazakstan
(from, World Atlas)
Landlocked in central Asia, Kazakhstan is the world 9th largest country, larger than Western Europe. It is host to one of largest amounts of accessible minerals and fossil fuel. Even though, Kazakhstan is relatively unknown to the general public and geoscientists. In order to encourage international research collaboration between ambitious young researchers from the UK and Kazakhstan, in March 2014 the British Council Researcher Links organized a workshop in Ust-Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan.

I was selected to attend this meeting and as a result I found myself on a Monday afternoon boarding a plane to Kazakhstan together with 12 other UK scientists. My main reason to attend the workshop was that palaeoclimatic reconstructions from this part of the world are almost non-existant. This while in the geological past (Mesozoic and Paleogene) Kazakhstan was on the bottom of a large epicontinental ocean that connected the Tethys Ocean with the Arctic. Any palaeoclimatic records from this region of the world are thus very valuable and could provide key-insights into deep-time paleoclimate. I hoped that some scientists worked on palaeoclimate reconstructions. Publications were sparse, and sometimes in Russian, so hopefully a face-to-face meeting would be good start for collaboration.

The modern campus of the East Kazakhstan
State Technical University in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
The first personal encounter with the vast size of Kazakhstan and remoteness was the time in took us to get there. Flying from London, it took us more than 24 hours to get to the small city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, located in northeastern Kazakhstan. Although temperatures in the UK reached a comfortable 18 degrees C that day, in Ust-Kamenogorsk day temperatures were well below freezing and winter still in full swing. Snow was packed half a meter high at the side of the roads.

The workshop was held at the modern campus of the East Kazakhstan State Technical University. The first days were filled with presentations from both UK and Kazakh scientists, as well as Simon Williams, the Director of the British Council Kazakhstan. An interpreter was used to translate Russian into English and vice versa. It was very interesting to give a presentation with an interpreter, it makes you very conscious of what you say and forces you to talk in brief and concise sentences. I was very happy to hear that several Kazakh palaeoclimatologist were present and very enthusiastic to share their results and ideas. Although palaeoclimate is not a top research priority in Kazakhstan, it was impressive to see the work that was already done. Several scientists worked on sections covering all periods from the Cambrian to the early Cenozoic and detailed stratigraphies were developed. We saw dinosaur eggs, beautifully preserved fossil leaves, fossil fish, and remains of large ferns. Very exciting! We had an impressive lab tour in which they showed us an array of state-of-the-art instruments that would make some UK-geoscientists jealous. 

All geared-up and ready to descend into the mine.
(I am on the right!)
As a main theme of the workshop was mining, the 3rd day we visited the Maleevka Mine near Zyryanovsk. After a detailed explanation of the daily operations of the mine, which mainly produces copper and zinc, we went down into the mine and had an amazing and slick two-hour tour. Although I am not an expert in mining, it was fascinating to see the mining operations from close-by. I was impressed by the state-of-the-art technology and know-how and safety regulations.

Remote-controlled mine dozer used to safely
get ore from newly blasted areas.
After four intense days (and nights), it was time to make the 30hr journey back to Bristol. My overall impression is that Kazakhstan is an amazingly beautiful country. It was impressive to fly for hours over snow-covered steppe and mountains. Although the weather was cold, the people were incredible warm and friendly. Wherever we went, people welcomed us with smiles and food, lots and lots of great food! The workshop was incredibly well organized. I definitely want to come back to this country. In fact, the last day one scientist gave me some Paleocene samples that I literally had to smuggle out of the country and which we will use for a pilot study. In the near future we aim to organize another workshop in Kazakhstan, focusing especially on palaeoclimate and hopefully some fieldwork because there is so much potential for great science and collaboration!
The British Council organized this trip. The UK coordinator was Prof. K. Jeffrey from the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter.

This blog is written by Dr David Naafs who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Organic Geochemistry Research Unit at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol.
Dr David Naafs

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