Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Job in Saskatoon

What am I doing in Saskatoon, anyways?

The short answer, as alluded to in previous posts is “a job”. Slightly longer: a job at the University of Saskatchewan, in the Department of Soil Science, working as a lab & field technician for a professor with interests in climate change biology and greenhouse gases (among other things).

While I’ve been doing a number of different day-to-day tasks here at U Sask since early January, I was hired for one specific project: Arctic fieldwork. Dr. Steven Siciliano, my primary supervisor, hired me to run some experiments and collect (and analyse) some data during a long field season in the High Arctic. For several years, Dr. Siciliano has been travelling to Alexandra Fjord on the eastern side of Ellesmere Island. He has an ongoing series of projects based there that revolve around the cycling of gases and other nutrients in the soil and between the soil and the atmosphere. There are a number of basic techniques to study such things, and last year Dr. Siciliano was able to jointly purchase with another professor in the department a machine that provides real-time measurements of the concentrations of different gases in air samples, allowing measurement of flows of these gases out of the soil and into the atmosphere.

The FTIR (Fourier-transformed infrared) device, which I normally refer to as “the FTIR”, passes air continuously through a measurement cell where an infrared laser, a detector, and some rapidly-vibrating mirrors examine the spectral characteristics of the air. This device can theoretically measure the concentration of any material dissolved in air (not suspended particles) if the appropriate reference files are available to the analysis software. The company that made it supplied us with reference spectra for Carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrous oxide (N2O), and Methane (CH4), as well as Ammonia (NH3) and water vapour (H2O), though in practice I’ve mostly been ignoring those last two. We’ve also got reference files for Ethylene (C2H4) and Acetylene (C2H2), but I’ll talk about why we have those in another post. For now, suffice to say they were not part of the original reason to buy the machine and take it to the Arctic.

I was hired primarily to run the FTIR on Ellesmere Island. When I was first talking with Steve about this job, before I’d even accepted the offer, we discussed the field season being somewhere between 6 weeks and 2 months long, at a remote field camp with essentially zero amenities. I had a few misgivings, of course, but on balance I was and remain very excited for the opportunity to conduct more High Arctic field work. I’ve never done a really long field season like that before, though last summer did include some remote locations, and in aggregate I was running all over North America for almost 2 months.

Field work in the Arctic is generally summer field work, for the obvious reason that in winter it’s nearly impossible to study the soil, most living organisms, or even the geology when everything is frozen completely solid, covered in blowing snow, and under 24-hour darkness. Starting in January as I did, my first job upon arrival in Saskatoon was to start getting familiar with the ideas and background information around the field work, and learn about the FTIR. This latter task was especially difficult because the machine was not actually in Saskatoon. It had been sent to an engineer in Mississauga, Ontario, for repair and upgrades. I don’t know the details, but somehow late last summer the FTIR was damaged, and water got into the measurement cell and condensed on the mirrors. These are very delicate platinum mirrors, and they needed to be cleaned by somebody who knew what they were doing. Additionally, the software that runs some operations had some bugs that could be fixed at the same time.

We didn’t get the FTIR back here in Saskatoon until early March, so other than reading papers about Arctic soils and greenhouse gases (and trying to get a basic understanding of this whole soil science thing, too) I didn’t have much to do. Steve found ways to keep me busy, which was useful for both of us – he got some useful work done (by me), and I got to accomplish a few small tasks and get used to working with him.

Once we got the FTIR I was able to start familiarizing myself with it. This is by far the most complicated machine I’ve ever worked with. The machine itself is in three parts, from three different manufacturers, and the part in the middle that lets various other parts talk to each other was custom-built by that engineer I mentioned in Ontario. The stamp of his personality is all over it, as a result, so learning to use the machine was at least partly about learning how Allan thinks, without ever having met him. The parts talk to each other via electrical connections and a series of air hoses, which means I have been introduced to an entire field of science I previously knew nothing about: gas chemistry. Short version: once you know the ideal gas law, everything else is pretty straightforward.

I leave for Ellesmere on June 23. I’ll fly to Ottawa, spend 1 night there, then on to Resolute. We’re scheduled to fly from Resolute to Alexandra Fjord by Twin Otter on June 26, weather and mechanical permitting. I’m scheduled to return to Resolute August 15, and to Saskatoon August 20. Contact with the rest of the world from Alexandra Fjord is by twice-daily radio check-in (and a satellite phone for emergencies), so I’ll be out of contact by email, phone, etc., for about 7 weeks. So if you thought my previous episodes of not updating were bad…

People have been asking me why I moved to Saskatoon, and this constitutes the basic answer. I may rant about some of the things I’ve done or had to do or had done to me in the last 6 months, but I wanted to make sure this post got up before I went into incomprehensible detail, or disappeared.


Carlo said...

Well, I'm glad to hear that things are going well. I sounds as though you're learning new skills and doing something that you enjoy. I don't know if I could do the whole 'go up to the middle of nowhere' thing for a couple of months, but I'm sure you'll bring lots of pulp science-fiction books to read in between long bouts of measuring soil gases...

TheBrummell said...

Oh yes, pulp sci-fi is de rigeur for fieldwork. See my previous post on the 7th Carrier, though that was far too craptacular for my (admittedly low-brow) tastes.

I've been told that I'm a weird person. I've also been told that I'm weirder than I think, precisely because I actually want to go to the end of the world for a long time. Seems this is not a common motivator for people.

BB said...

Been meaning to weigh in on this for several days now. Things are a little hairy here lately...

Have an awesome trip. I am really missing the north lately - the solstice does this to me. I love the never ending days. And the near complete absence of humans. I think you will enjoy your six weeks of solitude. Please do keep a log that you can upload when you get back to civilization. If you find yourself in Iqaluit for any period of time, go for coffee with Mark Mallory. Ahhhh, I am jealous. I am doing lab experiments all summer. I think this will be my first year with zero field work. Methinks you made some wise choices.

TheBrummell said...

Thanks for the comments, BriAnne. I am amused that you think I've made some wise choices - maybe I have, maybe I haven't, but I am having fun so I suppose it could definately be worse.

We only get about 2 hours on the ground in Iqaluit each direction, unless a flight gets messed up by weather or a blown engine or something, so unfortunately I won't be able to actually go into town - I had a great time last year just poking about in Iqaluit. Plus getting smuggled into a grand banquet, too, of course.

Parts of the Arctic are more accessible than others. Flights to Alaska are less expensive than flights to Iqaluit, and the Mackenzie delta can be reached by road most of the year - ice road on the river in winter! I'd like to do that trip sometime. So, you can still get North if you have even a small opportunity. Maybe next year?