Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Meanook Fall

Aspen in October.  At Meanook.
Posted by:  Kim

The troops are flying back to Canada today for the last trip of the season – they are actually on the plane as I type, after (not surprisingly) a bit of a delay at PHL.  October trips are usually my favorites, but this year, I am holding down the fort.  For me, bending over for long periods of time and carrying heavy equipment through squishy sodden -- yet beautiful -- peat is frowned upon by the powers that be right now.  Sigh.  I’ll miss the bright yellows and oranges of the aspen, larch, and birch swimming in the deep blue of the Alberta skies and I’ll especially miss the camaraderie of good friends doing fieldwork.  I’ll miss the berries and the foraging bears and the wild eagles.  The weather for this trip looks fantastic.  I am sure they will have a great time.

I will also miss, perhaps, my last chance to say goodbye to Meanook.  Our September trip was a busy one, filled with both field work and dismantling nearly 15 years of equipment and memories from a place we've called home for a very long time.  The Meanook Biological Research Station is closing.  We accomplished our field work in September; and then, systematically moved our equipment and tools out of Meanook.  Under the heavy weight of recent budget cuts, the University of Alberta has decided to step away from the field station, with the Department of Biological Sciences breaking ties with us and other external researchers associated with the station.  It has not been a smooth extraction, to say the least. 

Syncrude plant located just north of Fort McMurray. 2013.
Steven Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada since 2006, and the government of Alberta, are no friends to education, arts, the environment, or scientific inquiry.  With a power base in Alberta, Harper is changing the landscape in Canada in ways both metaphorical and literal.  Massive budget cuts have been imposed on countless institutions and researchers on a national level, and scientists have not only been defunded and disbanded, but they have also been actively muzzled.  Alberta, as a lightning rod for this new Conservative party mentality, now functions, along with the whole of Canada, with a bleaker, heavily petroleum based-economy.  Harper and his party actively shunt money now to industry, establish increased subsidies and reduced regulations to oil companies and their ilk, while systematically cutting funding for, and eliminating, jobs and resources to scientists and educators.   Scientists can no longer do their jobs (even if they have them), and continue to be limited in their ability to disseminate real data and information. Meanook, an outpost for scientists near the oil sands region, is closing.  It is not the first research station in Canada to fall under this new reality (far from it), but it is near and dear to us all; and as we struggle to reestablish a new paradigm for our own research needs, we hope we can help keep Meanook functioning in any way we can.  For now, our hands are tied.

While we were able to continue our research based out of Meanook this past summer, it will be our last unless something is done and done quickly.  I have spent large chunks, if not all, of my summers at this research station since 2002, and much of our team comes back year after year.  We’ve seen managers and cooks come and go, but through it all, Meanook is home, and a place to not only do science, but it is where we meet up with old friends who have turned into family.  The closing of the Meanook Biological Research Station is not only another jab at making scientific discoveries more difficult in the shadow of the oil sands region, but on a personal note, as researchers and human beings, it breaks our hearts.

We have hope that another entity will pick up the baton and carry it forward, but for now, we are struggling through upheaval and chaos. 

If you have some time, please read about what is happening to our northern Canadian colleagues.  For our research team, the effects are palpable, and for the Earth, it is a disaster buried in the smog.  

A FAR from exhaustive list of links that may be of interest:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Better Late Than Never - Synoptic Survey Photos

Posted by Katy

Back in late July, we conducted a synoptic survey of bog sites near the Ft. McMurray oil sands region. How does one do such a thing? With HELICOPTERS! Really. We hired a helicopter for the day and were flown from site to site so we could rapidly collect vegetation samples from a total of twenty sites over the course of two days. Not too shabby.

The survey also granted us the incredible opportunity to see the oil sands region from the sky; both the beauty of Alberta's natural peatlands and the widespread destruction of oil sands mining became apparent from our vantage point.

Our helicopter!
 A selection of some of the intact (and gorgeous) natural areas we spotted from above:

And the devastation of the oil sands operation...

It is hard for me to not feel upset and disturbed by the whole mining operation after seeing it up so close. Oil is energy, but at what cost? Oil from tar sands mining is the most energy-intensive to extract, and requires the destruction of some of the world's most valuable ecosystems. No thanks.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Photo Journal: A Day in the Life of the Nitrogen Fixation Crew

Posted by Katy

As we continue to set up experiments at an incredible pace (we are entering our fourth round of nitrogen fixation assays at all five of our NSF sites, plus our three CEMA sites, truly an impressive feat!), we thought it would be fun to share a typical day in our lives through a photo journal.

Wake up earlier than you want to and groggily make a bagel. Caffeinate yourself, because you'll probably need it!
Check the weather one last time!
Make sure everything is packed in your truck!
Time to head out!

The Day
Step 1 of our work day is driving to the site. We've already shared some of our driving mishaps, but even for our sites that are off of the highway, driving is a major task. Most of our sites are about two hours away, so we often spend at least four hours a day in the truck. Sometimes we will drive for a few hours and barely see another vehicle. On other days, when we have to drive up Highway 63 (also known as Alberta's most dangerous highway) to reach our sites, we may end up trapped behind huge trucks transporting logs, oil field equipment, and sometimes even buildings.

Sometimes there's traffic...

We make it! Once we arrive, we need to walk out to the bog. This involves anywhere from two to ten minutes of walking through various terrains. At our Crow Lake site, we walk for about ten minutes through some very swampy turf (and under a power line).
Today, we are taking gas samples from a 24-hour incubation that we use to measure rates of nitrogen fixation in the moss that dominates our bogs.
A happy incubation.

Taking gas samples.
After taking our gas samples, dismantling the incubations, and placing our moss samples back in their plots, we head back up the highway to our nearby Mariana Lakes site, a gorgeous peatland complex. We spot some collaborating researchers taking vegetation samples from the plots in the fen!

I have a side project at Mariana studying the influence of molybdenum and phosphorus availability on nitrogen fixation rates. It's been raining pretty heavily at Mariana for a while, and today I find out that my plots are almost entirely underwater.
Since my plots will be out of commission for a while (our incubation method doesn't work super well on entirely waterlogged moss), I take a pile of moss samples from the fen so I could bring them back to the station and carry out an experiment on the lawn. In the process, I manage to step in a hole and completely soak my feet. We try to stay as dry as possible as we walk through waterlogged peatlands by wearing tall, waterproof boots, but every so often a wrong step will leave one of us with a "soaker."
A handful of peat is worth getting wet feet over!
Back at Meanook Biological Research Station...
After returning from the field, we now have a pile of gas samples that need to be analyzed using gas chromatography. With a run time of 10 minutes per sample, and 48 samples per site per experiment, we spend a good portion of our time running the gas chromatograph. Right now, Hope fires up the machine and prepares herself for a long evening of running samples.
After a while, it is definitely time for a GC snack!
Our lab is currently a mess of sample syringes, jars for incubations, and data.

Outside on the lawn, I apply molybdenum and phosphorus treatments to the new moss samples I collected today.
Kitten, the feisty cat who is the true boss of the research station, bravely defends my samples.
With most of today's work done, it's time to get our supplies ready to set up an incubation at another site tomorrow.
And the next day...we will do it all over again! Working as field ecologists in ecosystems that have a very limited growing season means that we do keep quite a rapid pace during the summer. But with a dedicated crew, careful planning, and a sense of humor, we manage to get done everything that we need to and have fun while we do it.

Coming soon: Pictures and more from our helicopter survey of bogs near the Ft McMurray oil sands mining region!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Straight Past Tires...Long Time

Posted by:  Katy

Once upon a summer, it rained. A lot. For two weeks straight. A bit of rain doesn't prevent most people from going to work, but when your work site involves accessing dirt (or mud) roads that rarely receive maintenance, a little bit of rain can quickly turn into a big problem.

Pictured: a big problem.

Soon, checking the weather for a possible end to the downpour became our main hobby. On the first day of predicted sunshine, our small team decided that we couldn't wait any longer. Dubbing ourselves the "Ambassadors to Utikuma," Hope, Jacqueline, and I made arrangements to start our nitrogen-fixation studies at our two most difficult-to-access sites, Utikuma and Red Earth Creek.

Things were off to a bad start when we quickly realized that one morning of sunshine may not have been enough to reverse the damage caused by two weeks of rain. Within five minutes of driving the dirt road to our Utikuma site, our truck slid off the road and into a muddy ditch. With shovels, plywood, and several two-by-fours, we eventually dug ourselves out, and made the perhaps-not-so-wise decision to keep on driving.The rest of the drive was uncomfortably quishy and slippery, but in the end, we made it!
Always pack a shovel!

Our next road proved to be even more of an obstacle. At first glance, the road to our Red Earth Creek site looked smooth and unharmed by the downpour. We happily began our trek, not anticipating any problems. After a few minutes, we started to wonder: if the road looks so good, why do our tires feel so weird? Is there something wrong with our truck? We hopped out of Sparky and immediately sank into about six inches of mud. Looking back at the way we had came, we realized that the only reason the road was so smooth was because nobody had driven on it. Our tracks had formed deep, deep ruts. But once again, we decided that we might as well keep going. That is, until we reached the Pools of Despair.

In dry conditions, there are several deep holes in the road that cause the truck to bounce in a manner that is probably unsafe for both truck and passengers. In wet conditions, we learned, those deep holes fill up with water. Water that is higher than the undercarriage of the truck. We cautiously drove up to the holes, wondering if we should just gun it through and hope for the best. After getting out of the truck and walking through the knee-high pools of water, we decided against it. 

A rational group of people would have turned around and gone home. Instead, we grabbed some plastic boxes out of the truck and attempted to bail out the road. Needless to say, this was not an effective strategy.
How did this not work?
Not so easily defeated, we returned to the Pools of Despair a few days later with an even more surefire scheme - we cut up an old garden hose and decided to siphon the water off the road. We did not succeed in draining the pools, but Hope became intimately acquainted with the taste of muddy water. 

At this point, we gave in to our only remaining option: walk down the road with all of our equipment. We had been postponing this strategy for a while because we had absolutely no idea how much of a distance stood between the pools and our site. The only directions we had were scrawled in Hope's field notebook and were somewhat vague: "straight past tires...long time" We had made it past the pile of tires on the side of the road, but had no idea just how long "long time" was. Luckily, it turned out to be only about two miles between the pools and our site - not too bad of a walk! 

We also decided to engage in some casual amateur road engineering. Armed with a few shovels, we attempted to redistribute the mud built up around the pools in hopes that when the water eventually dried up we'd have a more even surface to drive on. We were both unequipped and unqualified for this task, but boy did we shovel some mud anyway.

This is how road engineers do it, right?

When we returned the next morning to take some more samples, we were greeted with the sight of tire tracks going off the road...and around the death pools. After all of our efforts, it appeared that what we thought was impossible (driving halfway off the road through a muddy ditch and into some trees) was, in fact, a totally viable way to get past the Pools of Despair. All of our crazy schemes were apparently as unnecessary as they were ineffective. We couldn't help but laugh. 

In the end, we learned a valuable science lesson: sometimes you just have to gun it and try. (But don't close your eyes while you drive.)

Coming soon: a photo journal of a typical day in our lives! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Rain, rain, go away...

Posted by: Katy

The rain here has been almost constant since last week, causing most of the dirt roads that we use to access our sites to turn into mud pits, and even entirely flooding our Mariana Lakes site (think underwater boardwalks!). Needless to say, this has thrown a wrench in our regular field work schedule, leaving us to try and do as much as we can at the three sites (out of ten) that we are still able to access. Because we are beginning our new NSF project, there is plenty of setup left to do still; yesterday a small faction of our crew headed out to place groundwater collection devices in the plots at two of our new sites, a process which involves digging a hole half a meter into the peat.
Cara digs a hole for the sipper. 
Placing the sipper into the peat!

This is a quick process if the ground isn't frozen, but as luck would have it, both of our Wagon Wheel bogs still have quite a thick ice layer, and we'll have to wait for the ice to thaw (or come back with a bigger tool) to place all of our water sippers.
I hit an ice sheet, sadness ensues.
Luckily, all was not lost! We still managed to place more than half of our sippers, and spent a good deal of time exploring the bogs in search of interesting moss species. Since we can't set up our normal experiments due to weather, the N-fixation crew is testing every species we can find for fixation potential. Our search for unusual moss species led us all throughout the Wagon Wheel bogs, as well as to a rich fen off of the 813 Highway, which to me looked like some kind of enchanted forest straight out of a fairy tale. In the end, we brought home plenty of feather mosses that we haven't studied before - definitely a great diversion in the midst of this dreary weather!