Friday, August 12, 2016

Thoughts from an Airport

Just a few things about this summer...thank you to everyone :) 

Some thoughts from an airport.
After 84 days in the True North, I have developed some skills that only a handful of dedicated individuals have acquired. We are the Few, the Proud, the Wetland Ecologists of Villanova University. 1. I am able to sit in the backseat of a pickup truck for up to 3 hours. (No longer than that, please). Most of our field sites are at least an hour and a half away, but the dreaded trip to Red Earth Creek is a whopping 3 hours. At least there is gas station about halfway there with a wonderful snack collection. 2. I am able to sort dried vegetation all day long, pending the fact that we are also watching movies and I am not sorting cranberry. 3. I can also unstick myself from what I like to call ‘Peat Black Holes’- endless pits of doom that one might slip in at any given moment on any footpath at any site. I think I’ve mastered the effective way to wiggle out of such a predicament. (Except that one time…RIP to my left boot somewhere at Utikuma).
After just about 3 months, I have learned these brilliant, resume worthy skills, but also the process of nitrogen fixation, the correct way to insert “eh?” into any Canadian sentence, and the definition of a bog. (Supposedly there’s no water movement, but I also learned that that’s kind of not true.) I am a Tim Hortons Convert and huge fan of the Canadian Netflix selection.

This summer was nothing short of the Greatest Adventure of my Life So Far. I learned how to operate a Gas Chromatogram, collect pore water, measure photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and that Sphagnum is the “Greatest genus in the world”- Kell Weider 2016. But I also learned that Yevgenia loves to watch horror movies, Mikah is a crochet wizard, Hope only drinks cold drinks, and Kelly has a secret super power for baking Olympic themed cakes. Catilyn calls her grandfather everyday and Wendy can cook a masterpiece dinner from even the emptiest fridge. This summer was a summer spent outside, sunburned, bug bitten, but almost always happy. I am so thankful to have seen the mountains in Jasper National Park, to have raided the thrift store weekly and to have celebrated America’s birthday in Northern Alberta with the people that I did. Thanks to one wild gang. Cheers to the adventures.

Monday, July 11, 2016

 Posted by Kim

Black Spruce cones form in clumps high up on branches near the tops of trees.  They are considered serotinous. That is to say, these specialized trees depend on fire to help release their seeds to the world.  The trees bear slowly-opening cones for 25 - 75 - 100 years until a fire sweeps through to rapidly open the cones to disperse their seeds to the charred peat.   They have evolved to survive in a world in which fire is expected – and up here, that return interval is estimated at just over 120 years.   You would be hard pressed to find spruce trees older here in the bogs of Alberta, and we can tell you where a few are, but they are rare rare rare.  We also think that the fire return interval is likely shrinking.  Fires are predicted to increase in intensity and to happen more often. This is all part of the climate story of the world.  

The Fort Mac fire has recently been categorized as being held, and it has surely released a multitude of black spruce seeds – many in our study sites.  It has also burned a bit of our equipment and more importantly, some beautiful landscape is now black and crunchy. The town itself seems to be recovering as well.  They don’t let you into the residential areas that were nearly completely demolished, but the town seems to be chugging along with most things back open.
I just spent a few days there with Caitlyn and Wendy and we rolled along the truck-filled roads with our aim on science. We breathed in bad smelling air and watched stacks billow brown tinged ‘steam’.  The big business of oil sands was back up and running.

At Anzac, the first site we visited, the constant buzz of bugs was punctuated by helicopters carrying water bucket after water bucket to nearby hotspots.  Bright green Cloud Berry leaves and Labrador Tea plants were starkly tender on the charred peat; and a month post fire,  where I stood, life was returning.

Along with Anzac, McMurray Bog was also partially burned with the Black Spruce taking the brunt of the damage at both sites. Another site, Mildred, was a total burn.  Two other sites were left unscathed and wait for the next fire to open their cones.  The science moves on. 

These bogs are resilient and I am glad to see that life springs anew sometimes even because of great tragedy.  We will return again in a few weeks and I'm sure we will find new and green freshness springing from darkness.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Aftermath of the Fort McMurray Fire: WBEA Monitoring Sites

the train tracks to Anzac

Mikah measuring methane fluxes in the newly burned Anzac bog
Anzac: both burnt and unburnt

Hope walking the path at McMurray Bog

Mildred did not survive the blaze. The entire site was destroyed by wildfire.

destruction in Fort McMurray - nothing left but rubble and ash

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bears, Fluxing, and Fert

Well, the fire still burns, but we are busy with our fieldwork and the team is gaining momentum.  Two teams today split up and one fluxed and one fertilized.  It was a busy, successful day.  We had hoped to get to Fort McMurray by now, but access is still restricted and so we continue to focus on our NSF project.

By my count, we have collectively seen at least 4 bears – one of which came walking by our front door and explored the yard.  That is a seriously respectable number for our short stint  up here thus far.  We’ve seen a host of fox, several coyote, tons of deer – some of which have decided to race our trucks and then cut us off – some of which are in our front yard.  We’ve seen so many birds of all kinds, and squirrels and we’re pretty sure there is a wolf skeleton at one of our sites.  We are teaming with all kinds of wildlife and I hope to see more. 

I’m at the end of my first trip up here for the summer, but really it is just the start for us all.  The crew is great - Tough and Smart and Funny and hard working and they still seem to all be enjoying themselves, so that is a good start.  

Cheers to a great summer!   

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mildred Burned

Posted by Kim

Well, we are pretty solid on our Mildred site burning pretty much as I type this.  It is located very close to the Syncrude/Suncor main stacks and ponds as you can see in the satellite image below.  We had hoped to wander up in that direction tomorrow, but it is looking less and less likely that we will be able to visit any of our sites up there for quite a time.  We will keep you updated.

To the right you can see the overall fire activity this morning.  Today we plan to hit our Red Earth Creek and Utikuma sites which happen to be the furthest sites west and away from this area.  There appears to be a small fire under control north of Red Earth Creek, however, it seems like those sites are all in the clear. 

In other news, it is good to be here in Athabasca again, and the weather is projected to be a lovely 80 F and sunny today.  It is a good day to do field work, but probably not a great day to fight fires.  Keep your fingers and toes crossed.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Science On

Thanks, Kelly, for your great update yesterday!   Athabasca has been our home for a long long time and I look forward to joining Kelly and Hope on Tuesday to start our field season.  Our hearts go out to the people of Fort McMurray, many of whom still do not know if they have homes still standing or a place to return to.  They all wait for word that they can head back to Fort McMurray to see what the fire has left them.

We, too, await word.  We are starting our field season, and it is shaping up to be an odd and possibly treacherous one.  Field work, in general, trends to the tenuous, and we have had to wait to get up to some of our sites before because of fire, but this year is beyond precedent.  We have two sites that may have burned.  We won’t know until we show up.  One is just south of the airport and one is just north of Anzac.  The MODIS satellite imagery has them both questionable. Our sites are the green dots in purple lettering.
Two of our bogs (green dots) amid a see of yellow, orange, and red dots indicating age of fire with red being most recent...  Image was taken off Google Earth May 5th.  The fire has spread into and off the borders of this image since.
This fire season is already in full swing and it is only May.  This year it officially started in March, and since then, the area has seen 30+C weather and a paucity of rain.  The fire threat is Extreme for all of our field sites currently, and the Fort McMurray fire is still burning, and, as of this morning, is just over 251,000 hectares large with several areas still out of control.  There are currently over 1,000 firefighters and firefighting personnel, 134 pieces of heavy equipment, 39 helicopters, and 11 airtankers working on this wildfire, alone.  It remains impressive and devastating and we are holding our collective breath.

All this being said, we are still looking forward to the new field season and I’m excited to get the crew together to start our work this year in the Boreal.  We return to the house where we were last year, and are lucky to do so.  Our colleagues have not been so lucky – some of whom have lost houses in Fort Mac or the ability to get up to the area to do any of their research.  At least we have several projects still in unburned areas and we can start our work.  I expect there may be some camping happening in the Fort Mac area this summer, as housing will be terribly tight.

We will be sure to keep an eye and nose to the sky and earth as we roll from site to site this summer - especially paying close attention to where we park hot trucks.  Bogs tend to hold onto fire deep into the peat, and so we will be vigilant and mindful of the potential for fires everywhere.   For now, we will do our best to keep the science moving forward.  Sites have burned in the past and sites will burn again in the future and there is always room for more questions to be answered.  So…. With that in mind: 

 Science on, crew!  

We hope to be diligent about our updates this year, so stay tuned!

Posted by Kim

Saturday, May 14, 2016

97 Days

     It takes a lot of work to prepare a research team for a summer fieldwork campaign, but somehow we always manage to do it. The last few weeks have been busy getting paperwork finalized, gathering supplies, tying loose ends, and finding passports. As I was filling out my Canadian customs card on the flight to Edmonton, I was counting the exact number of days I would be staying in Canada before my return to the US, and I concluded that it was ninety-seven days! That is a long time to be in another country, away from home. But the great thing about being here every summer for the past few years is that I feel like Athabasca IS my home. I am very excited to be in Alberta once again, doing the fieldwork that I love so much. Bring on the bogs!

     Hope and I arrived in Athabasca late Thursday night. The weather is warm and dry, with perfectly blue skies. But with warm, dry weather comes wildfire. There was a wildfire raging last week in the city of Fort McMurray, 250 km north of Athabasca, near the oil sands mining operations. All 80,000 residents were evacuated overnight on May 3rd. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed by fire. While the fire has moved away from the town center it is still burning hot in the surrounding boreal forests. Even now the residents have yet to be allowed back into their community. They are essentially refugees in their own province. 
200,000 hectares of land burned by wildfire in the Fort McMurray region from May 1st to May 8th, 2016.

     There was a Fort McMurray relief concert on Saturday at the Athabasca riverfront. It’s rare that we take time off away from the peatlands to participate in the town’s activities, but this was a good cause to support. There was music, barbecue, and a donation collection to support the fire relief fund. The headlining band was a group of Fort McMurray musicians, calling themselves the Fort Mac Refugee Band. Athabasca may be a small, but the people sure know how to support each other in times of need.

     We are lucky to be working with the wonderful people at Athabasca University. Everyone has been so helpful with getting us set up in our house and allowing us to store our trucks during the winter, and even offering to help us bring our equipment out of storage. The facilities office at AU is the best.
     Hope and I are getting things ready for the arrival of the rest of the Villanova team including Mikah, returning grad student, Wendy, prospective grad student, 2 undergrads from Villanova, Libby and Yevgeniya, and an undergrad from Virginia Tech, Caitlyn. As well as the usual suspects, Kel, Melanie, and Kim. We look forward to meeting up with the rest of the summer 2016 crew.