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“Sannikov Land” as a dream about geothermal energy

Joint project of St.-Petersburg Mining museum and Forpost Nord-West.
Обручев
© Общественное достояние

Vladimir Obruchev wrote his famous novel at the age of 61. Vladimir Vysotsky, Marina Vlady, Oleg Dal, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky fought for the right to shoot in its film adaptation, and only in the first year after release, more than 41 million people watched the film. The most amazing thing is that the author of the book was first of all not a fiction writer, but a world-famous geologist!

Vladimir Obruchev was born into an ancient noble family, whose members built military fortresses, commanded the troops and closely interacted with such historical figures as Chernyshevsky, Milyutin and Herzen. His German mother, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, took a great part in the boy's primary education. She used to read to her children Jules Verne, Cooper and Mein Reed. As a result, love of travel and perseverance, strict discipline and stubbornness mixed together in the future popularizer of science. This contradictory symbiosis of qualities helped him to achieve success throughout his life.

горный университет
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Thus, in 1881 the young man entered the Mining Institute. The choice was explained by the fact that the Institute allowed him to get a profession in demand and to quench his thirst for travel. At that time, the Institute was producing "miners" and "factory men": some were developing new deposits, working at mines and digging pits, others became engineers and managers at enterprises. As a student, Obruchev was called a "bomb" due to his passion, energy and willfulness. Once again he justified his nickname when he flat out refused to choose between two options and made a firm decision to become a geologist.

At the end of the 19th century, little was known about this speciality. For example, the Geological Committee (the main specialized state institution in the Russian Empire) was established only in 1882 for geological mapping and study of the subsoil of the state. It consisted of only seven specialists, and each was destined to become a pioneer. Perhaps Vladimir Obruchev would not have paid attention to this little-studied at that time area had he not got acquainted with the geographer and famous traveler Ivan Musketov. The new professor at the Mining Institute included discoveries of previously unknown minerals and large mineral deposits, as well as research into Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. With his lectures, held not only in classrooms but also "in the fields", he literally infected the young man with a passion for geology and the search for an answer to the question: how the structure of Earth has evolved over centuries. After graduation, Mushketov made Obruchev a proposal which the young man was delighted with: to go on an expedition to Central Asia. The Trans-Caspian railway was being built from Turkmenistan to Samarkand, and since part of the route had to pass through the Karakum desert, a geologist was required for consultations and study of the movement of sands and ways to protect the road against them.

пустыня
Фото © А. И. Шастов, Барханные пески

The young specialist fell in love with the monotony of desert landscapes, but after a few years of expeditions made an unexpected decision: move with his family to Irkutsk. He managed to get a position in the local Mining Department and became the first geologist in Siberia. Then the work on its research began, which eventually took several decades and resulted in many scientific articles and laid the basis for the history of geological exploration of the region.

In 1892, Obruchev joined the epochal expedition of Grigory Potanin to China and Southern Tibet, through Buryatia and Mongolia. In two years, the team overcame a total of more than 13 thousand kilometers. It was exactly those adventures that Obruchev had read about as a child and for which he became a geologist. He visited places where no foot of a European had stepped before him.

Обручев
© Общественное достояние

7 thousand samples of rocks and prints of fossil animals and plants, map sketches and piles of photographs allowed him to draw an unprecedented “portrait” of Asia: to describe it in terms of terrain, natural features, and population. Published scientific articles and travel diaries made Obruchev not only a famous traveler, but also a scientist. The researcher returned to Irkutsk, and then in 1901 he moved to Tomsk. After assessing the mineral potential of the region, he expectedly decided that it was necessary to develop mining education here. Based on memories of his alma mater and gained experience, he created a mining department at the Tomsk Institute of Technology and became its first dean. In fact, Obruchev founded the Siberian Geological School. In the result of his work appeared specialists whose names are associated with the discovery and development of the abundant deposits. For example, under the influence of Obruchev's lectures Nikolay Urvantsev transferred from the Mechanical Faculty to the Mining Department and years later discovered a unique Norilsk copper-nickel deposit and became the founder of Norilsk.

обручев
Фото © Обручев в ки­тайском костюме, Пе­кин, 1893.

After teaching for over 10 years, Vladimir Obruchev had to resign. The Ministry of Public Education classified him as a “politically unreliable employee”. Not only did the latitudinarian dean in his satirical articles openly ridicule the bureaucrats of science, but he also offered to make Potanin, a man with whom he had been exploring China, an honorary member of the Tomsk Institute. Everything would have been fine had the geographer not turned out to be a friend of anarchist Bakunin and a convict, who had been repeatedly tried on charges of revolutionary activity.

Обручев
Фото © Горное отделение Томского института, 1905 год

Thus, the world-renowned scientist at the age of 49 found himself on forced vacation without a clear understanding of when it would end up and whether it would end at all. Obruchev began to clean up the materials he had accumulated during more than 25 years: he returned to his previous records and observations, which he had once postponed due to lack of time. In just a few years, more than a hundred of his scientific works on geology, such as monographs, articles and maps, were published.

“And why not try your hand in the artistic genre, since you have free time,” the professor asked himself. The answer was the novel Plutonia about scientists' journey to the inner cavity of Earth and about the discovery of the underground world inhabited by prehistoric creatures. The Russian geologist was sure that fiction should seem believable to the reader and avoid forthright scientific blunder. And the author did achieve his goal.

"I received quite a few letters from readers, in which some seriously asked why new expeditions to Plutonia were not equipped; others offered themselves as members of future expeditions; and some were interested in the future fate of travelers derived from the novel.

Ten years later, he wrote another science fiction book, and the success of the new book was stunning.

обручев
Фото © "Земля Санникова", 1971 год

However, despite the unprecedented popularity of Obruchev’s fiction books, his scientific importance has always been a lot more significant. Back in the early 20th century, during an expedition to northern Yakutia, Obruchev heard from local residents the story of the existence of a mysterious warm island lying far away in the Arctic Ocean. It is supposedly covered with forests and meadows in the ring of high mountains, where migratory birds fly away and where the onkilot tribe, driven by militant Chukchas from the Far North, settled. This legend inspired the scientist to write the novel Sannikov Land. The academician explained the probability of warm land in the Arctic Ocean by the giant crater of an extinct volcano.

After the revolution, the country needed a new leap in the development of heavy industry, and therefore, the mining industry. Vladimir Obruchev was again invited to work. He got engaged in cement exploration in Donbas, taught at Tauride University in Simferopol and Moscow Mining Academy, wrote geology textbooks, and managed such large-scale institutions as the Institute of Permafrost Studies of the USSR AS and the Geological Institute of the USSR AS.

What studies made Vladimir Obruchev a world-famous scientist:

- Loess soil

Yet during his first expedition to Turkmenia after graduating from the Mining Institute, Vladimir Obruchev took note of the dynamic geology, namely the role of the wind in the origin of loess, yellowish sedimentary rock, which covered entire valleys in the territory of present-day Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and China. This topic became one of the main in his research. He developed the aeolian hypothesis, according to which the rocks in the form of moist dust are transported by the wind and form powerful massifs in the early years of his scientific activity. The discussion about the nature of loess had more than one century; during his subsequent expeditions and travels to China and Central Asia, Obruchev sought (and found!) evidence in favor of this theory.

лёсс
Фото © Till Niermann, Википедия

On his return from Turkmenistan, he wrote his first scientific work The Sands and Steppes of the Trans-Caspian Region, which was awarded the Silver Medal of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, of which a full member he became.

- Gold mineralization, glaciation and tectonic structure

Siberia combined the three most important for Obruchev scientific topics.

While working as a geologist in the Irkutsk Mining Department, Vladimir Obruchev spent a lot of time studying gold deposits. He developed his own practical recommendations for searching for the precious metal, which he willingly shared with local owners of mines. At first, they answered vaguely, but over time they became convinced of the young specialist's rightness. For example, he advised to look for gold where the native rocks are rich with pyrite cubes. Little time had passed, and just a visit of Obruchev to some gold-bearing region of Siberia immediately led to the growth of shares of companies mining there.

The scientific result of his expeditions to the Angara, Lena and Baikal was a large monograph Geological survey of gold-bearing regions of Siberia, which for a long time was an indispensable guide of all specialists.

Обручев
Фото © Обручев с сотрудниками-геологами на Ленских приисках в 1901 год

By the way, according to Vladimir Obruchev, the location of gold deposits is largely determined by the location of ancient glacial deposits in the region. Such beliefs about the history of the geological structure of Siberia were revolutionary. According to the then generally accepted point of view, because of the arid conditions of the Siberian climate, no ancient glaciation could have been in the region. Obruchev was sure of the opposite. Moreover, he collected the necessary evidence and was able to convince the scientific community that the glaciation of Olekminsko-Vitimsky District had occurred twice, and Siberian glaciers were formed as a result of the glacier movement.

Throughout his life, the scientist was fascinated by tectonics. He formulated one of the first tectonic theories: the movement of Earth's crust was explained by the planet pulsation. Today it is not the main one, but still finds followers.

Обручев
© Общественное достояние

When Obruchev died in 1956, one of the oldest and most respected scientific journals Nature published an obituary, which picked up the great geologist’s status of the "communicator of science,” a person who creates scientific discussions, actively participates in them and maintains public interest in them.