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!