Monday, October 12, 2015

The End of (My) Summer

Tomorrow I will pick up my rental trailer, fill it (and my truck) with my abundant possessions, and drive East. This marks the final stage of my move to Ontario - started at the end of March, and I've been between homes (or simply homeless) since then. I measure this by the time elapsed since I last paid rent - unless I find an apartment for half-way through October, I will have avoided paying rent for 7 months by the time this move is complete.

A quick bit of googling (google-mapping?) leads to an estimate of 31 hours total driving time from Regina to Kitchener/Waterloo, taking either of two entirely-Canadian routes that diverge near Nipigon, Ontario. Highway 17 follows the north shore of Lake Superior and around Georgian Bay, while Highway 11 takes an inland route further north. I took 17 the last time I went that way - back in late March. This time I plan to take 11 because there are fewer elevation changes along the inland route. There are a few roads that connect 11 and 17 in their western parts, which will allow me to revisit this decision if, for example, weather conditions at Longlac are very poor. 

I received an email from U-Haul today informing me my reserved trailer would be guaranteed available at noon tomorrow, which is later than I'd like to pick it up; hopefully they'll let me have it tomorrow morning. Then I need to pack it and get moving. Kenora, Ontario is approximately 8 hours away, and I am fine with arriving at a hotel in that small city at some late hour. I am also fine with a lesser drive tomorrow, so I might end up merely somewhere east of Winnipeg, or even in that city. 

My planned stops - and plans are slippery fish that change and change again - are Kenora, Longlac, and North Bay. That places me within about 5 hours of K/W on Friday. I get a free month of storage with U-Haul, that I have already arranged for a drive-up locker at one of their facilities in Kitchener. Rather than struggle to move my possessions, that I have been apart from all summer anyway, into my friends' basement (up the stairs, through the doors, down the stairs) I can just dump the contents of the trailer and most of what's in the truck into this storage locker and then leave the empty trailer. 

If I don't make this schedule I will be disappointed because there are people in Ontario waiting to see me, and a birthday party and other festivities to attend this upcoming weekend, but it won't be the end of the world. Assuming no serious problems on the road, and I fully plan to take it easy and slow, I think I am in danger of losing at most a day, and if things go very well I could conceivably arrive in southern Ontario late on Thursday. Rather than put in a punishing 12-hour day followed by at least an hour to unload, I'm OK with paying for a hotel room in Barrie or wherever if I'm in very good shape as I pass North Bay.

I don't have a picture to go with this post, so here's a shot of the delicious saskatoon-berry pie and coffee I had at Ness Creek back in July.
Ness Creek 2015 19

Monday, September 28, 2015

Field Crews

I really enjoy field work, and if I did not have the opportunity to spend at least part of the year working outdoors I do not think I would have stayed in Science. Field work almost always involves a team of people, for reasons including safety (working alone is verboten by most institutions and organizations, public and private), effectiveness and efficiency, and the realities of funding. Employing* undergraduate students as field assistants for graduate students, post-docs, professors, and other academic researchers has a long history, and each and every time this involves building a field crew, a team of workers to conduct the research, usually for the first time for at least some of the people.

* The debate regarding unpaid positions for undergraduate students in labs and field crews is one for another post; suffice to say I am extremely wary of unpaid work, especially when a commitment of several months is required. This gets to the heart of several issues in the modern practice of science, and there are no clear and easy solutions to the problems of getting the work done with very limited resources.

In my experience, a professor makes most of the decisions regarding the composition and schedule of a field crew for each field season. New graduate students are recruited along with a few undergraduate assistants based on the funding available and the sometimes-tentative research plans. I have never had any direct input into the composition of the field crews I have been a part of during my PhD and post-doc field seasons, though I can think of a few occasions when I have been offered a hard veto that I have never exercised. I’ve never had a major problem with any person I’ve been working with under field conditions, and so far at least I have been able to smooth over or safely ignore any minor issues that arise.

This topic unavoidably addresses issues regarding women in science, a huge and very important topic that certain parts of the blogosphere – at least, parts of the bits I read on a semi-regular basis – talk extensively about. Most of those discussions are from perspectives quite different from my own, though our opinions may align well. In short, I support anybody having a career in science, because I’m having a great time here and I think lots of other people would, too. There are of course much more important reasons to support greater equality in science and in other areas, and I like those reasons, too.

Field work often includes activities in which a person’s physical strength is an important factor. Field crews I have been a part of have ranged from mostly-male (Arctic 2010 – 3 out of 4) to mostly-female (this summer, 3 out of 4 for most of the time). I am the only male in the lab group I am a part of for this post-doc, and nearly everyone in this lab does at least some field work.

Over the last few days, and for the next week, I have been working with one other person, Marie-Claire, a scientist from Universite Laval. She helped me with the last of my 2015 summer field work, and I have been helping her with some of her work. She pointed me towards a paper (Newbery, 2003) she read some time ago that I managed to find during one of our rare encounters with a useable internet signal a few days ago.

Newbery, L., Will Any/Body Carry That Canoe?
A Geography of the Body, Ability, and Gender. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 2003. 8: p. 204-216.

This is a paper rather outside my usual academic reading, though not outside of topic areas I spend much of my time thinking about and talking about. To (awkwardly, and probably poorly) summarize, Newbery presents arguments regarding the concept of “strong enough” or “capable of performing that task” that could, and in most cases should be used as indicators of the suitability for a given person for a given role or job.

Among the various things we (“my” field crew) did this summer was boardwalk construction. Working in a wetland means building places to walk to limit damage to the vegetation; one of my colleagues quoted his former graduate advisor: “The boards are to protect the plants, not to keep your feet dry!”. The minimum boardwalk is literally just a board, something like an 8-feet-long 2x8 thrown down on the wetland in the direction one might wish to walk. I find this unacceptably primitive, and prefer something that doesn’t slide away or lever up and swing sideways when I step on it. Not just to keep my feet dry – I’m wearing big rubber boots, my feet stay dry regardless – but to prevent accidents and to prevent a big piece of wood smashing into various bits of scientific equipment. More acceptable designs include cross-pieces, a bit of 2x4 or 6x6 the walking surface is attached to with nails or screws that helps to keep the boardwalk in place. In extremely wet areas, where we are essentially working in a broad, shallow pond with a substrate made of very soft and water-saturated partially-decomposed organic matter, upright posts are used to minimize the pumping of the spongy ground that results from a person walking on the board. We measure gas flux, among other parameters, and pumping the ground leads to outgassing that invalidates our measurements of “typical” gas movements. The uprights I have installed this summer are 2x4s cut with a diagonal end and driven down into the peat.

Sometimes, an upright can be simply pushed down into the peat, then horizontal boards attached to it. Most of the time, however, an upright must be hammered down. A one-handed mallet, such as the 3-pound rubber mallet I purchased a week ago, works in moderately soft peat but is fairly exhausting where plant roots or other obstacles interfere with the post-driving. A two-handed hammer, such as an 8-pound sledge or a similar-weight deadblow hammer, is the best way I have seen to efficiently drive large stakes or posts into the ground. However, while I am (barely) strong enough to wield such a hammer in the usual manner – swing up over my shoulder, power stroke with the hammer nearly vertical above my head, driving down with the bigger muscles of my abdomen as well as my arms and shoulders – many of the people I work with are not able to swing such a hammer in that way. Instead, they lift the head to just above their head, with the handle nearly horizontal, then drive downwards using only the muscles of the arms. Power correlates very clearly with the speed with which a stake can be driven to the desired depth, so in some situations I am about twice (or even more) as fast as my colleagues. Accuracy is obviously important in this task, a missed stroke might be merely annoying or it could cause a serious injury. So it is important that one only uses this tool in a way that does not overstretch their strength or skills.

Broken Hammer
(Picture unrelated) If you pound enough with a big dumb hammer, eventually it breaks. Doesn’t matter who does the pounding, hammers have a set quota of bangs they can handle before they catastrophically fail. This 8-pound deadblow hammer came from Princess Auto with a layer of hard blue plastic wrapped around the metal head. That chipped off over a few days of pounding.

Speed is probably the least important factor in this task, despite the automatic desire by anybody picking up a stake or hammer to just blast it out as quickly as possible. Newbery (2003) speaks of this subconscious urge and spends some time discussing difficult physical feats and the pride associated with success, measured perhaps by an ability to complete a task without interruption, or on the first try. It is rapidly apparent on some reflection that reaching the goal – boardwalks built to avoid outgassing, canoe and gear transported from one lake to another – is the only factor that matters (with the unspoken but important addition that safety – no injuries – comes first [or second or third, if you’re Mike Rowe]). Keeping the goal in mind, as well as the bigger picture of both safety and daily, weekly, or monthly work goals, certainly helps with safety because there is less pressure to rush through difficult tasks, and makes my life much easier because the attitude towards the work relaxes, for everyone.

This gets back to the “strong enough” or the simple binary “capable / not capable” that Newbery (2003) describes. I can carry two boards over my shoulder; my coworker might be able to carry only one, cradled in her arms horizontally in front of her, and she walks more slowly too. No matter, the boardwalk will still go to where we need it, the work will still get done, and if I try to do it all myself I’ll burn out or get injured, in addition to the damaging effects on team morale if I pull some sort of manly-man silliness.

Newbery (2003) also briefly discusses the emotional reactions to achievement – if you think you might be able to do something, then you do it successfully, it feels pretty good, to over-condense what looks like a rather sophisticated argument built on philosophy I’ve not yet encountered. Aside: I think I understood around half of Newbery (2003), the other half relied on an understanding of current philosophical work that I just don’t have. Getting back to achievement, I think letting people try, and either succeed or fail (and hopefully try again!) is far superior to any attempt to shield someone from something I might suppose they are not capable of doing. There is almost always more than one way to complete a given task* and I lack the imagination to instantly think of every possible method.

* Except the proverbial skinning of a (dead) cat – “There’s more than one way to skin a cat!” is an ironic statement because really, the only way is to get a firm grip and pull. That’s something I learned in a 3rd-year Biology lab, during the requisite cat dissection. We had named the dogfish “Byf” but I cannot recall the name we gave our preserved tabby.

This long-ish, meandering post is meant as the beginning of a conversation, or just a point somewhere in the middle, not my final words on this subject. If you could point me towards a related discussion happening on a blog or public forum I would be grateful!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Longest Field Season I've Ever Heard Of

The title of this post is not strictly true, but I am at the end - or, perhaps merely near the end - of an extremely long field season. Yesterday two days ago I finished the last round of gas-flux measurements that I expect to do as part of this summer of field work; the fact that these measurements were made less than 50 hours after the official end of (astronomical) summer is no more important to the definition of "summer fieldwork" than the first measurements made in May.

As usual, I have been basically terrible at keeping this place up to date and generally maintaining contact with people. Here's a short description of my activities since March of this year.

End-March, 2015: I drove from Saskatoon, SK, to Kitchener, ON, to start my new job as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Waterloo, working with Dr. Maria Strack in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management. At the time, I did not know if I would be spending my entire summer outside of Ontario, or would be visiting field sites for days or weeks at a time but basing myself in Kitchener/Waterloo. 

April 1: In what has so far not turned out to be an April-Fool's prank, I started as a post-doc at U Waterloo. Among the first decisions to be made, among such tasks as acquiring keys and locating work spaces, was that I was to spend 4 months in Alberta. As such, there was no need for me to find my own apartment and I could save thousands of dollars in rent money.

May 6: I flew to Edmonton, AB, and then was delivered to the house in the tiny town of Seba Beach, AB. 

May 7: We - I'll describe my coworkers in a moment - got started on the project. Briefly, Dr. Strack has an ongoing series of experiments looking at the process of cutover peatland restoration. After draining, clearing, and harvesting a peatland (either a bog or a fen, depending on local hydrology), restoration of the peatland involves returning the ecosystem to something resembling the natural site that was there before. This is very complex, but one approach is to examine ecological function, such as the net movement of carbon into or out of the ecosystem. Immediately after harvest, an exposed field of decomposed peat is a strong exporter of carbon, in the form of both CO2 and CH4 as the microbes in the peat digest the organic matter. As plants re-establish themselves on the field, their photosynthesis and changes in water movement patterns eventually leads to a situation in which the field as a whole is a net sink for carbon, with growth and accumulation outweighing respiration and near-surface populations of methanotrophic bacteria consuming all or nearly all of the CH4 still produced in deeper layers.

Coworkers: At the beginning of the summer, I was working with Ali, recently graduated with a B.A. in Geography at U Waterloo; Stephanie, working a co-op term with us after her second year of her Geography B.A.; and Cristina, AKA Dr. Cristina Lazcano, post-doc / adjunct prof. in the Geography department at the University of Calgary. Stephanie went to Manitoba in late June to replace a worker who quit. In late July we (Ali, Cristina, and me) were joined at Seba Beach by Sabrina, who started her M.Sc. with Dr. Strack in September. We had a few other visitors, but most such visitors were at Seba Beach for their own projects, which may overlap with what we were doing but they were not there to help us directly.

June 1: Convocation at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK. Because I knew well in advance I needed to get myself from Seba Beach to Saskatoon at the end of May I decided to gamble on vehicle ownership. At some point in April, while I was in K/W, I came up with what I thought of as my "Summer Truck" idea, and that it would be mildly crazy and a gamble. It was, but in a very good way - I like to think I won that gamble. My truck, now named Tarrandus*, has been fantastically useful.

* My truck is a 1997 Ford Ranger XLT. The name Tarrandus comes from the scientific name for caribou / reindeer, Rangifer tarrandus.

Zebra Stripes
Tarrandus, seen here parked in front of a shop near Charlie's and my former apartment in Saskatoon. I intend to paint the white canopy in black-and-white dazzle camoflage, and I thought this shop's zebra stripes served as a first look.

June 4-6: Canoe trip with Charlie. Charlie and I have established our own tradition of canoe trips on prairie rivers on (or near) the May Long Weekend. This year, because of my work schedule and the date of convocation, we decided to have this trip a few weeks after May-Long, in early June. We completed the trip we had started two years previously, travelling down the Qu'Appelle River from our rescue-pickup location to Buffalo Pound Lake.

After the Storm 26
Our tent, shortly after a "gully washer" - a small, intense storm typical of summer rainstorms on the prairies - had blasted down the valley and repainted the sky.

June 28-July 2: ICoN4 Meeting, Edmonton, AB. Four years ago I attended the second International Conference on Nitrification (and related processes) in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The third meeting was in Japan and I was not able to attend, but the fourth was in Edmonton and when that decision was made I was in Saskatoon and knew I'd probably be able to attend. Seba Beach is only about 80 km from the University of Alberta where the conference was held.

ICON4 Workshop
This photo of the pre-conference workshop attendees was "favourited" and re-tweeted when I uploaded it to Twitter, mainly by other attendees or their academic collaborators.

July: I travelled to Saskatoon three times in July, to spend time with Charlie and to pack up our apartment there and move some items to Regina. Charlie moved to Regina for August 1, but my stuff as well as her items we could move to Regina before August were placed in a friend's garage in Regina. My stuff is still there, Charlie has moved into a fine apartment.

Also in July, plans formed for me to spend some time in September at various field sites in Western Canada. My coworkers, including other members of Dr. Strack's lab working in other places across Canada, finished their field seasons in late August, variously returning to their homes around August 21 to August 25. I had no fixed dates to be in Ontario to restrict me, so when opportunities for early-autumn fieldwork were raised I quickly agreed.

August 10(ish): The Vegetation Survey at the Seba Beach sites started to take over my life. Early plans were to complete the Veg Survey in the last full week of work, approximately August 24-28, under the assumption this would constitute only four or five days of work. In reality, the Veg Survey grew into a monster that completely consumed all other tasks over three full weeks. We placed around 600 quadrats on a grid of transects covering about ½ of the total area of the Restored Site and all of the (much smaller) Unrestored Site. Then there were accessory tasks, like biomass collection and some side-projects involving the spread of Birch trees into the Unrestored Site.

Transect Laying
I took this photo during a short break from laying transects, while I was near the western edge of the Restored Site. If pink or orange flagging tape is visible in this photo, those are quadrat positions on the transects.

August 15: I was invited to a wedding in Nisku, AB, just south of Edmonton. Charlie’s friend Moose was attending a cousin’s wedding, and needed a neutral party along to help avoid or diffuse any family-history based awkwardness. I love weddings – any excuse to party, and a wedding is a damn good excuse and opportunity for that – and August 15/16 was pretty much my last free weekend of the summer so of course I went. I stayed at Airways Country Inn – Nisku is adjacent to Edmonton International Airport – which is a hotel catering mainly to truck drivers, and attached to Peelerz, a strip club. I did not go in to Peelerz, but I did enjoy my complimentary beverage (Gin & Tonic, for me) at Drillers, the lounge / restaurant at the hotel. My gift to the couple was a tea set from the knick-knacks shop across the street from the house in Seba Beach. Tea sets, it turns out, are kind of a specialty of that shop.

Wedding Gift
My gift to the couple with the unpronounceable names. Think stereotypical German meeting stereotypical Ukrainian, then throw in a hopelessly monolingual Anglo like me.

August 21: Charlie arrived – in Red Deer, I drove down there to pick her up after a day in the field - to spend a lovely weekend with me at Seba Beach, then she was a tremendous help with the final parts of the Veg Survey and some of those side-projects that we’d put aside during the main Veg Survey work.

August 28: Very early in the morning, Charlie and I dropped off the other three people (Ali, Sabrina, and Scott, sent to us from McGill to help. So I was wrong about none of the visitors helping us, above) at Edmonton International Airport, and then spent the rest of the day and most of the weekend relaxing at Seba Beach. It really is a very nice place to spend time, at least while the weather is good in the summer.

August 30: Charlie took Tarrandus to Saskatoon to help her complete her move to Regina, and I drove to Fort McMurray with Kim, M.Sc. student in Maria’s lab. Kim had spent most of the summer in Ft. Mac, and there was an opportunity for her to collect some early-autumn data from her sites there; I went along because I like those opportunities. Also for various fieldwork general-safe-practice reasons and because it’s good for me to show my face at Suncor in Ft. Mac for reasons to do with where my post-doc funding comes from.

August 31-September 6: Kim and I braved the terrible, terrible September weather of Fort McMurray and got the work done. Once again, UPS was involved and managed to be utterly awful in every way – that’s a rant for another day, but the short version is: DO NOT USE UPS. Despite these difficulties we had a pretty good work week and I’m happy with the data and samples we pulled out of the various wetlands there.

Saline Fen
This is a view of "Saline Fen", one of Kim's study sites. Photos from the main study site on Suncor's mine have to be approved by Suncor before I can show them to anyone else.

September 7-10: Another opportunity for early-autumn fieldwork; Cristina and I collected a final round of gas-flux data at Seba Beach, then packed up the equipment and supplies, cleaned the house, and drove to Calgary on September 11.

September 12-13: Weekend in Calgary. I spent some time with my friend Rick who I hadn’t seen in several years; good times were had in a dim basement with bad movies and violent video games, just like old times. A++ would click frantically under fluorescent lights again.

September 14: I took a Greyhound bus for the first time in my life, from Calgary to Regina. This represented a bottleneck in my movements, because baggage restrictions on an inter-city bus are similar to those on an airplane. My usual habit of just tossing everything into the back of the car or truck was not useful here. The trip itself was pretty uneventful, and simultaneously less boring and less exotic than perhaps I had been expecting.

Pigeon at Bus Stop
This pigeon had found a perch among abundant anti-pigeon devices, and seemed entirely unconcerned by my presence as I waited for the bus to return to the Husky station. The passengers had been deposited at this Husky station for 30 minutes, not enough time for me to enjoy a meal at the restaurant, and I didn't want to spend my time with the other passengers in any case, most of whom were smoking outside of the convenience store.

September 15: After only a few hours with Charlie I drove from Regina to Brandon, MB, to stay with Dr. Pete Whittington of the Geography Department at Brandon University. He is involved in peatland restoration projects in Manitoba (as well as other places) in cooperation with Dr. Strack and Dr. Line Rochefort of Universit√© Laval. Dr. Whittington loaned me his drone after a bit of practice flying; a drone is a fun toy and I want one. I’m not sure what I might *do* with one outside of work, but they still seem like tremendous fun.

I took this photo in Manitoba while I was assisting another researcher at a site. I deliberately treated it like I would a bird, just to practice my birding technique.

September 16: I left Dr. Whittington’s house early in the morning, and had breakfast at the Husky House restaurant beside Highway 1. That would be entirely unremarkable except for two things: there was a clearly mentally-ill older man at a table who spent the entire time I was there talking to the various voices in his head, and the food was not the best I’ve had. I generally like Husky House restaurants for breakfast, I can get a “traditional” breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns and unlimited coffee for a reasonable price (that would make an American, accustomed to IHOP and Waffle House, weep for the prices Canadians pay for such fare). It was still pretty good, just not as good I usually expect.

My plan had been to pick up Ali at Winnipeg International Airport around 11:00, but heavy traffic on the 401 meant she missed her flight from Pearson (Toronto). She made it to the check-in counter before the plane actually took off, but not through security and to the gate in time to board. Air Canada allows passengers in such a situation to take the next available flight for no additional charge, so I received a text from Ali just after breakfast describing this situation and giving me 3.5 more hours to do whatever I wanted. So I visited Spruce Woods Provincial Park, between Brandon and Winnipeg.

Spruce Woods Marshs Lake
Spruce Woods is an excellent provincial park. I went to the sand dunes there, and took this photo from the top of the hill just north of the dunes where an observation platform has been built that allows some tremendous views. Marshs Lake (no apostrophe, and this is not the usual plural of "marsh") has a walking trail around it and if I'd had more time I certainly would have explored it.

I have spent the time since September 16 at the Moongate Bed & Breakfast, about halfway between the two tiny towns of Elma and Whitemouth in eastern Manitoba; we are not far from Whiteshell Provincial Park. This B&B is quite pleasant, with a full kitchen that makes our lives much easier (and cheaper) than relying on a hotel / restaurant combination. If you follow the link, you might see that Moongate advertises itself as a retreat from the pressures of the modern world, including such nuisances as cellphone reception and the internet. This digital isolation (they use the term “digital detox”) is a bit of an obstacle to some of our work here, and I am posting this from the boardroom at Sun Gro’s Elma plant.*

* That was my plan. I wrote most of this yesterday, and I had intended to return to Elma Plant in the late afternoon but was distracted by the availability of good beer at the local "country" store. I am posting this from the house patio at Moongate, where the owner's wi-fi leaks out.

Ali returned home on the 22nd, and I finished the last few tasks of projects I am directly involved in here yesterday (23rd) morning; now I am a field assistant for Marie-Claire. Marie-Claire is a kind of researcher / lab manager / general task-manager and student-wrangler working for Dr. Rochefort at Laval, and is here in Manitoba to supervise some new restoration efforts at Sun Gro’s operations. We have been spending a fair bit of time out at the field to be restored, discussing plans with a highly capable and very easy-to-work-with heavy equipment operator named Bruce. He can draw straight lines across the landscape with his dozer in a way that makes me and my wobbly transects look like a drunken moose leaking bright pink flagging tape.

I will be here until Marie-Claire’s work is complete, which mostly means until she is satisfied that Bruce is doing exactly what she wants him to do as he fills ditches, damns drains (i.e. big ditches), and constructs “bunds” out of raw peat. I had thought this might be early next week, but it is now looking like we will depart next Thursday or Friday, or about one week from today.

If I do leave eastern Manitoba on Friday, then my field season will have been 149 days long, or nearly three times my longest stay in the Arctic, the 53 nights I spent in a tent at Alexandra Fjord in 2009. Of course, in the High Arctic by mid-September there is not-melting-this-year snow on the ground and air temperatures are averaging zero or lower, while here in south-eastern Manitoba we still have many of the signals of summer, including the blackflies and mosquitoes that bit me earlier this afternoon (yesterday afternoon, see above asterix), and some signals of autumn, such as the hyper-aggressive wasps that did not appreciate my appreciation of their volleyball-sized nest in a short tree. The swelling in my hand has almost completely faded (it's gone completely now, though a faint itchy feeling remains).

The nest, with angry wasps patrolling the exterior.

Wasps - Closeup
A close-up look at the entrance and entrance guards. This is a heavily cropped version of a photo taken with my 105mm telephoto macro lens; I did not get close to the nest a second time!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Summer 2015 Plans

I successfully moved to Kitchener, and spent April with my friends there. On my first day at work, we (Dr. Strack and I) worked out plans for the summer that can be summarized as “Alberta for four months”, so I did not look for an apartment and just enjoyed the company of my fine friends and their lovely house in Kitchener.

I am now in the tiny Alberta town of Seba Beach, about 80km west of Edmonton. I have two field assistants this summer, Stephanie and Ali, and so far – less than a week into the season – we all seem to be working well together. We’re living in a house in Seba Beach rented by the company, Sun Gro, which owns the lease on the peatlands we’re studying. It very much feels like a summer home, with an unusual layout – the three bedrooms are on the ground floor, the kitchen and living room are upstairs – and a clear history of renovation and addition, such as the electrical subpanel in my bedroom. The furniture is a typical summer home mix of new and second-hand, but it’s actually a very nice place to spend time when we’re not working out at the field site.

Our site is a set of patches of peat wetlands – properly called fens due to their hydrology – that Sun Gro previously harvested. Some areas were harvested more or less intensively than others, and some areas have had various restoration efforts applied to them while others have been left to regenerate on their own. My work will focus on the nitrogen cycle processes in these ecosystems, especially N2O fluxes and the mineral and organic nitrogen pools in the soil and groundwater that contribute to N2O fluxes. Another post-doc, Cristina, will be working here as well, with her work centred on the dissolved organic carbon and its relationship to different types of vegetation (mosses vs. sedges, primarily) and the fluxes of CO2 and CH4.

Data collection is structured around weekly measurements of greenhouse gas fluxes with large chambers placed on permanently-installed collars in various places on the fen. Other measurements, such as dissolved carbon and nitrogen and water-table height, will fit around that weekly schedule. The workload appears moderate, which means we’ll have plenty of free time to explore this part of the world and/or analyze data and come up with fun new research ideas. 

Seba Beach First Look 1
Seba Beach First Look 2
Views of our main field site, from our first day, May 7.

I’m also shopping for a vehicle. I’m currently car-less, again, which is a state of affairs I always find mildly distressing; I like having my own wheels. This is Alberta, and for reasons of plans I have in mind for later in the summer, I’m shopping for a small pickup truck. My modest budget – I could afford up to about $4000 – covers a range of compact trucks from Ford, Mazda, Dodge, Toyota, and Chevy with model years from the mid-1990’s to the early 2000’s. I’m prioritizing 4-wheel drive and a manual transmission simply because I want both of those features, and I’ve been told to avoid V8 engines for reasons to do with not completely abandoning any sense of environmental responsibility – trucks don’t get good fuel efficiency compared to cars as a general rule, but I’m not supposed to go hog wild here. It seems unnecessary to stuff a big 5L+ V8 into a compact truck, but then I don’t work for Dodge.