Monday, October 13, 2008

Part IV, Day 8: 080728

This morning was heavily foggy. I have been told repeatedly that such weather is not uncommon in the High Arctic during summer, especially in places like Truelove that are very wet and close to the ocean. We had a little bit of rain and some quite strong breezes, too, which was new for me; I haven’t previously encountered both fog and windy conditions at the same time.

Looking roughly SouthWest from camp, through this morning’s fog. The plywood board in the lower part of the picture is partially covering our generator, which at the moment is powering some laptop computers and the electronics associated with some scientific instruments.

Looking East from the middle of camp, my tent is visible mainly because it’s bright yellow. Everything else around here is basically grey.

Foggy conditions at Truelove are dangerous for several reasons. First, it is very easy to get lost on the tundra in the fog – even with a good GPS unit, it is possible to walk right past camp without realizing it. There were moments when the fog was so thick that a person walking between the buildings and the radio antenna, about 30 metres away, might not have seen either. The fog even muffles sound, surprisingly effectively. Second, the fog is cold. High humidity combined with an air temperature close to zero and a good breeze provides ample opportunity for hypothermia. Wandering around in this stuff could easily induce a life-threatening loss of core body temperature. Third, the combination of polar bears, shotguns, and multiple people working over an area larger than can be seen is a recipe for disaster – I don’t want to let a polar bear get close enough to see in these conditions, because a bear at 20 metres is a bear that’s already killed me, but I also obviously don’t want to shoot anyone. So we stayed inside, and did what paperwork and planning we could.

The fog lifted off the ground just before lunch time, allowing us to get out and get some work done.

After lunch we set up the big transect. Asim is co-advised by two professors, Angela who is here with us, and another professor in the physics department at the University of Saskatchewan who works on soil physics. I gather this basically comes down to soil water content analysis, and extrapolating physical processes from such data. Asim’s primary responsibility while here at Truelove is setting up and gathering data from an extremely long transect, a line drawn on the ground that acts as a framework for data collection. He has settled on a design that involves 129 quadrats (sampling locations) every 4 metres along a 512m-long transect that crosses two raised beach crests and does not touch permanent water anywhere along its length. Meeting these requirements took some looking, but eventually a position was chosen with its closer end about 2km from camp. Part of the justification for this location is it is relatively close to Maxime’s work site, a series of about 20 quadrats not arranged on a transect, among some distinctive raised polygons. I’m not clear on the details of either project, but I gather both Asim and Maxime will be measuring gasses such as Carbon dioxide given off by different types of soil. In any case, both of them seem happy with their research sites, in much the same way that I’m happy with the ponds I’ve found. The practice of science, and all that.

A view from the transect, looking back towards camp from about the 60 metre position. Those squat, green cylinders are pieces of 10-inch agricultural pipe, cut to 4-inch heights and embedded in the top layers of the soil. The device that measures soil gas flux fits on top of those pipe segments. The orange flags mark quadrats along the transect.

Looking the other way down the transect, from about the same position as above. That’s about as straight a line as can be made using current technology in these condition – Asim measured every flag position with a differential GPS unit supposedly precise to something like 20 centimetres. The far end of the transect is not visible because the last 20 metres or so are beyond another raised beach crest.

I spent most of the afternoon helping Eric to estimate ground cover by various plant species. Eric is a botanist, who mostly works on how plants divide up soil resources via their roots. The patterns of plants on the surface are not necessarily similar to the patterns of plant roots in 3 dimensions in the soil. In any case, Eric volunteered to help with the transect by collecting data on what species are present at each quadrat along it. This involves him leaning over a 50 x 50 cm quadrat with his nose close to the ground, calling out species names and numbers representing his estimate of percent ground cover by that species. My job was to write these numbers down on the data sheets Eric prepared ahead of time. Two people doing this, even when one is not at all a trained botanist (i.e., me), greatly speeds up the process because Eric doesn’t have to take his eyes off the ground to write down the numbers. It was pretty cold out there, sitting on the ground, but at least we didn’t have to worry about mosquitoes, and we could take short breaks whenever we wanted to drink some nice hot tea and eat sugary foods to stave off hypothermia. I was surprisingly comfortable most of the time, and Eric and I seem to get along well together.

After dinner we mostly just planned out the things that need to get done over the next couple of days, and fretted about the effects bad weather could have on our work and our schedules.

The fog didn’t really go away so much as it just got up above ground level. This meant today was rather dark, despite the fact the sun never set. I took this picture after dinner, looking NorthWest from camp.

Tomorrow I plan to help Eric finish off the transect, and collect from some of the ponds near the transect, weather permitting.

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