Monthly Archives: May 2016

A little water goes a long way

By Nate Emery, SBC LTER

How do you catch a cloud and pull it down? It’s not easy, but that’s what I have been doing for several years: investigating how fog affects shrub species along the southern California coast. Figuring out how plants use fog water is a two-fold process that involves stable isotopes and plenty of fieldwork – yeah for working outside!

The first step is catching fog. I do this with a fog collector that looks like a dual-axis harp made from PVC, fishing line and rebar. Fog and dew condense on the fishing line and drip down into the PVC gutters which funnel the water into a Nalgene container. This container has pre-weighed mineral oil in it to trap the water and prevent evaporation. It is a passive collector and as long as it stays clean, it catches fog fairly well. This water is then run through a machine called a mass spectrometer, which analyzes the isotopic ratio of oxygen and hydrogen, so I can compare fog with the composition of rain and groundwater.

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The Fog Collector. It looks like a harp with two perpendicular sets of strings. As fog water condenses on the vertical strings, it drips down into PVC funnels and is collected in a container with mineral oil in it to prevent the water from evaporating.

The second part of the analysis involves measuring the plants. Fog water can be taken up by plants through shallow roots and even leaves! To measure the stable isotopic signature of fog water, I collect stem samples and immediately freeze them for later isotopic analysis. The isotopic signature of the water that is extracted from the stem samples enables me to determine the origin of the water source for that plant – fog, rain, or groundwater. Since southern California is a semi-arid environment, water evaporates from the soil surface and I have to take this into account because this means the water taken up by plants in the ground is likely different from the original water source (fog or rain). This involved a lot of fun times coring, or digging, for soil. This is not always the easiest task when the ground is dry, rock-hard clay.

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Coring for soil samples.

One of the most interesting things I’ve found doing this research is that lots of different plant species are using fog water during the summer drought, and for some of them, this reduces their flammability! This is important because less flammable plants could potentially mean smaller wildfires – a major concern in dry California. So the next time you’re lamenting the foggy weather and wishing for a sunny California day, think about how happy the plants are for those little bits of water and maybe do a little jig on their behalf.

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Happy plants covered in dew from the fog.

Picture5Author: Nate Emery (nemery@lifesci.ucsb.edu, @FoggyIdeas, nathanemery.com)

Nate is finishing his PhD on fog and fire ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been measuring fog deposition and water use of several dominant shrub species for 5 years. What’s in store for the future? It’s a bit foggy…

The Rigors and Rewards of Fieldwork

As our boat cut through the chop of the Santa Barbara Channel, sending fans of spray hissing in our wake, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful day and consider how fortunate I was that my job requires regular SCUBA diving. While relishing this blissful feeling and the glorious weather, I noticed that my fin strap was loose. We were in between imgboattwo quick dives at the oil platforms off of Santa Barbara, and had all of our gear on so we could immediately jump in at our next dive site. As I reached down to adjust my fin, the boat hit a particularly large swell, causing it to heave unexpectedly, sending me flying backwards in an awkward tumble off the side of the boat and into the Pacific. That sunny glow I had been feeling was immediately replaced by shock at how quickly I was thrown, embarrassment for not paying attention, and amusement at the baffled faces of my dive team as the boat wheeled around to retrieve me from the ocean.

Field research abounds with moments like these, where a switch flips and a routine day suddenly turns into chaos. These hurdles range from minor to major: weather conditions or platform operations have kept us from diving on schedule, IMG_2818equipment has fall to the depths of the ocean, a housing once failed and ruined an expensive camera, and I’m guilty of forgetting water or food out on the boat. I have to remind my envious friends that it’s not all fun and games out in the field, and that sometimes I have to overcome logistical, physical, and mental blocks that could potentially hinder successful research. However, these experiences, for lack of a better term, build character. I’ve learned to take things in stride and be a creative problem-solver. I understand my limits, but feel so accomplished when I challenge myself and succeed. Though I would consider myself to be a detail-oriented micro-manager at times, I’ve learned to be relaxed and flexible with on-the-fly decision making.

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If nothing else, the challenging days make me truly appreciate the good days that make it all worthwhile. Diving at the oil platforms is breathtaking in ideal conditions. Visibility can reach 100 feet, far more than a good day on the mainland. Huge schools of juvenile fish, large adult fish, and elusive pelagic species make appearances out at the platforms.

 

Girabaldi1 (1)The invertebrate community growing on the platform’s structure is rich and vibrant; pink, purple, and peach strawberry anemones abound, shrimp dart around mussel and scallop shells, and millions of barnacles wave their feeding combs. Playful sea lions curiously swim by and pirouette as if putting on a show.

 

BIMG_1341efore I started this thesis, another graduate student told me about the trials and tribulations of her thesis work. She told me that one needs a sense of humor when conducting a laboratory experiment. I can’t help but wonder if that means that someone doing a field work needs the sense of humor of a true comedian, because there is even more room for setbacks in the field. In spite of the challenges, I wouldn’t dream of exclusively working out of a laboratory or office; the rewards of fieldwork are a regular affirmation of my choice to pursue a career in ecology.

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viola_authorpicAuthor: Sloane Viola (sloaneviola@gmail.com)

I am a second year Master’s student at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying the effects of disturbance and community dynamics on the colonization success of a non-native marine epibenthic invertebrate on offshore structures. Prior to starting this research, I worked as an undergraduate intern and then a lab technician in a beach ecology research lab at UCSB. I did an undergraduate thesis on the effects of fine sediments from nourishment material on the burrowing ability of beach invertebrates. When I’m not being a scientist, I play beach volleyball and kickball, surf, hike, read, and I’ve been building a ukulele.

 

Look at the Filters on that Rack!

I am a biological oceanographer and I study plankton – microscopic floating plants and animals. That means to do my research, I filter seawater – liters and liters of it. Why? Well, in order to study the small plankton in the ocean, you can’t use a net; they’ll slip right through even the smallest net. So, first I collect a lot of seawater with a specialized container called a niskin bottle (basically a tube with opening and closing ends that capture water), then I need to concentrate and separate the plankton from the seawater. To do this, I use an incredibly important piece of oceanography equipment: a filter rack.  To use a filter rack, you pour the seawater sample into specialized screw-on cups, hook the entire the entire system up to a vacuum pump that sucks all the seawater through a thin plastic filter membrane, and catch all the plankton you want to study on the thin filter membranes. I typically filter seawater through filter membranes that catch very small things (less than 1 micron or 1/10000 of a centimeter!) so that I can catch even the tiniest plankton. I then use these filtered samples for lots of different analyses, from genetics to microscopy, to figure out what plankton are there, how many there are, and what they’re doing.

But, filter racks aren’t just use to study plankton. Measurements of chlorophyll (the light-absorbing pigment in plants), nutrients, and trace metals in seawater all require using filter racks. So, to underscore just how important the filter rack is to oceanographic research, here is a selection of the many filter racks I have come across in my research.

Filter racks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of sophistication, including lovely hand-crafted solid wood creations complete with the artistic stylings of bored graduate students.

White arrows indicate graduate student sharpie art.

Personally, my favorite type of filter rack is the humble pvc-pipe version that many young oceanographers create themselves after a trip to the nearest hardware store. With some pvc pipe, cementing glue, and bright red on/off valves, you can create a custom, spiffy looking filter rack all your own.

PVC filter racks: the humblest form of filter rack.

Filter racks are multi-purpose too – who needs a darkroom when you can toss a blanket or spare garbage bag over the entire filter rack to protect samples filled with light-sensitive plankton?

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Sometimes, it’s not necessary to have an entire rack of filters when just one filter will get the job done.

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It is debatable whether or not watching the seawater filter makes the process go any faster.  

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And when you’re at sea, sometimes you might need to filter with your life vest on inside the lab – just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, biological oceanographers need to remember to smile while doing all that filtering because it gets us all the samples we need for our research.

 

 


freibott_authorpicAuthor: Alexandra Freibott (afreibott@ucsd.edu)

Ali is a PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California and studies microbial ecology in the California Current. She is an avid reader and enjoys taking her dog Louie for long walks on the beach during work breaks.