Wednesday, 10 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 41: First Fairbanks Field Trip- Drilling Boreholes in 'Poker Flats'

Today would mark my very first scientific field-trip with a professor from the University of Alaska. I just so happened, yesterday, to ask Kazuyuki Saito from the International Arctic Research Centre whether I could join him on today's trip to Poker Flats, as his current project sounded interesting. I will talk about the specific project in a second. As I made my way to his office, in the cold -4 degree C temperatures of the early morning, I was greeted with an amazing sky. The university is wonderful for great views of the horizon as the whole campus is built on top of loess deposits, from the end of the last little ice age.

 There would be a number of us going to Poker Flats today, from the Arctic Research Centre. Kazuyuki, the project leader, aswell as myself, Bob (the technical expert) and a guy called Go; a Japanese researcher currently managing quite a few different projects. Bob would meet us there, and after a thorough search of the building (which involved several trips up and down the three floorsof the building) Kazuyuki and I finally met up with Go. After loading all the necessary equipment into the car, we set off. For a professor's car, I expected an academic radio station, like Radio 4 in the UK. Instead, we were offered hits from the 70s and the 80s, compliments from Ted FM. It was all rather ironic.

Poker Flats Research Range is about a 45 minute drive from Fairbanks University, although I'm not totally sure as I think I fell asleep a couple of times. The flats are, as the name describes, on flat terrain in between two slopes, just off the highway. Although flat, most of the land is vegetated with boreal forest. Tussock is popular here in forming non-sorted pattened ground. Tussock is a plant that is commonly tufted, as many stems arise from one cluster, forming a kind of mushroom shape. Around these tussocks, is an extremely thick moss and herb layer; these mosses are like great sponges, meaning walking through it can be a wet experience. Trees are homogenous, mostly, with just black spruce growing, but you can see the anomalous white spruce here and there.

Kazuyuki's current project is to record ground temperatures at various areas of the Poker Flats area to further understand how various pedological, ecological and atmospheric conditions affect ground temperature. To do this, boreholes have to be drilled, and a pipe has to be inserted. Around this pipe is a coil of wire, with fibre optics, that can detect temperature. But the data is not sent via satellite; on the contrary, the wires have run along the forest floor from the base station all the way through the forest, connecting to each pipe, and back again to the base station. Today's job was to finish drilling the last couple of boreholes and connecting the wires.

We started with sorting out the many coils of wire. Each one has a code printed on it, so that they are laid in the right positions in the forest. Kazuyuki seemed to know what was what. Before we knew it, we were off; my role was to make sure that the wire didn't get caught on overlying vegetation. Such a responsibility; I was honoured to be part of the process.

The first borehole had to be drilled, not in the tussock, but in a grassland area. We suspect that this region used to be a settlement about a hundred years ago; the settlers cleared the area, and succession has since taken place. From studying Geology back in college, I've always wanted to see the drilling of a borehole, and today I got that opportunity.

During cleaning of the drill parts, we discovered traces of sand, and I suggested that a river had once run through, probably before the last glaciation, because of the graded bedding; furthermore, the sand deposits were found underneath loess silt desposits. So, the next stage was to insert the pipe, and after a few adjustments to the wires, it was in; one down, one to go.

Lunchtime came; I sadly had forgotten to pack lunch but Bob offered me a can of coke. It was something, anyway. After lunch, Kazuyuki and Bob went back into the forest to sort out some more wiring, while I shadowed Go. Go is working, as I said, on more than one project. Today he showed me just one of them. He's measuring ground heat flux, on another area of the Poker Flats. To do this, he inserts a number of different sensors underground, and connects them to one central line that leads back to the lab. Because of the nature of the area (heterogenous or many different vegetation types) he is expecting differences in his readings, even when there is only a couple of meters between two data loggers.

The time came to go back into the forest, to help drill the final borehole. This time we had to drill in the heart of the tussock, through the thick moss bed. I even had the opportunity to be part of the drilling!

The last job of the day was to solder two loose wires together, to connect the two borehole pipes. The process is a complicated one, involving small machines and tools. I was glad to be in the observatory position, watching Kazuyuki and Bob work on the very fidgety work. As they were, I noticed the sun was very quickly setting; it was getting colder and I was starting to shiver. Fortunately, the task didn't take long and we were headed back to the car, on the way back to the university.

After getting back to the university, the best thing to do would have been to get back to the hostel to have a shower; after all, it felt like my bones were cold. On the contrary, I arrived just in time to go to the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra; not a performance, though. Oh no, a rehearsal! I've never actually seen one of these for a professional orchestra before, but Sarah and Bill know the conductor and managed to sneek me in too! I would say the rehearsal is just as exciting as the performance itself. It allows you to hear just how the pieces are put together. Certain players were asked to play, while others kept silent, and if the conductor felt they needed more polishing, they would be asked to play it again. It will be nice to go on the actual night in a couple of weeks time, to hear and see them play it through once and for all.

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