Soil pits!!!!

Got to go into the 10-meter deep soil pit yesterday to sample the gases floating around in the soil profile! So awesome. Plus we saw a snake.

The pits are an amazing resource for doing science – we can use them to check out what ecosystems do below the surface using all manner of data. Moreover, we have pits in forested areas and one in a soybean field, so we can ask questions like how moisture down the soil profile (i.e., down below the soil surface) changes as you get deeper and as you compare between Amazon forest and agriculture. The amazing field technicians down here dig the pits by hand and reinforce them with scaffolding – it’s pretty amazing!

Sometimes you get to do hella cool stuff when you’re in the field. Super rad.

Roundup: Photos from the forest

Photos from January and February 2014, Tanguro Ranch (Fazenda Tanguro), Mato Grosso, Brazil.

I believe that you can click on any picture and it will bring you to a slideshow.

Tapir in the soy

Tapirs are crazy hilarious.  They are like gentle, kind of inane giants of the forest.  But every time I’ve seen a tapir on the farm, save once, it’s been when a tapir was chilling in the soybean fields, a la this photo.  That compound of houses in the background is our field site, where we all stay and where I have my little lab room.


Being on the edge of rapid deforestation (i.e., an area that has changed dramatically in, say, the last 15 years, from mostly a wild forest system to mostly a series of big farms with some forest in between them, like where I do my research) has the very surreal but cool side effect of lots of animals still being around even though it’s basically a human-dominated system at this point.  My speculation would be that there just hasn’t been enough time for these local populations to die off/retreat further back into the forest.  Instead, I see a lot of very cool animals very often, despite the fact that the forest around us is very fragmented.

My friend Oswaldo Carvalho has done some research on this – he put up camera traps (that take a photo when something walks by) in a bunch of areas of forest around farms in Mato Grosso to see what species were utilizing the habitat around agriculture.  Turns out, it was tons of species and a surprisingly high density of individuals.  Plus, he got dope photos of a bunch of crazy rare Amazon animals.  I don’t think that work is published yet, but when it is I will put up a link.

This photo was taken earlier this week when I was on the way to do some sampling of nitrogen-derived greenhouse gases.  Nitrogen!  Climate change!  Field measurements!  Woohoo!

Update: I found a link to a write up of some of the outreach work that Oswaldo about his results – he distributed pamphlets to landowners letting them know what kind of species tend to live on the lands around them and how they can support that biodiversity. And he found 37 medium to large species, including pumas (which I’ve seen on our farm) and jaguars (which I have not). So rad! 

10 meter soil pit

The field site I work at has several soil pits that were dug 10 meters into the ground in a forest control plot. It is a crazy ridiculous resource for a soil and ecosystem nerd like myself. In fact, I’ve been spending some of my down time working on a little side project looking at how nitrogen flows downward in the system. Most of my sampling measures losses of nitrogen up, into the atmosphere, but nitrogen also sloshes around in soil water and then flows into a system’s groundwater.

Anyways, to check out how the soil profile effects N, if at all, we’re comparing information about nitrogen from near the top of the pits to near the bottom of the pits. All of which is just a set up to post photographs of Sandro and Santarem setting up Sandro to safely rappel 30 feet into soil land. So cool!

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As you can see, there’s a bunch of scaffolding/ladders that are keeping the pit stable and safe and letting technicians and researchers navigate it safely. But folks also have to go in with climbing gear on, just in case. And I got the veto on going down, probably because I’m a weakling. So don’t worry, mom! :)

Final conclusion: this job rocks.

Nitrous Oxide Sampling: a tale of jerry-rigged restaurant pans

Last trip down I wrote a post about the adventures Paul and I had jerry rigging restaurant steam pans into fancy-pants, high-functioning gas sampling chambers. Now that I’m back in Brazil and have official permission from the landowners at the farm to begin this project, I’ve been out in the field a few days a week sampling for atmospheric nitrogen losses!

Brief summary of my research focus down here: the big question here is, after deforestation for Amazonian agriculture, does the way nitrogen moves around the system change? If so, how? And, more particularly, does it change how much nitrogen is emitted as nitrous oxide (N2O), a powerful greenhouse gas?

Measuring N2O losses (that is, measuring emissions of this particular greenhouse gas) goes down kind of exactly as you’d expect it to. Here’s the nitty gritty, complete with fun photos!

First, we roll up to a site in a sweet IPAM truck. My sites are either primary Amazon forest, soybean agricultural fields, or soybean agricultural fields that are planted with corn in the off-season to get the farm some extra dough. Here’s a photo of one of the forest sites. You can see a gas sampling chamber in the background. It’s the shiny silver thing.

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We tromp out to wherever we’re set to be sampling that day (modern GPS resources are amazing!) and put out restaurant pans that are cut open at the bottom in order to be driven into the soil. Then get ready for some high tech solutions… we take a piece of wood, put it on top of the thingy, and jump on it until the thingy is driven into the ground. Yes! Science!

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After waiting a respectful amount of time for things to equilibrate, we get ready to start gas sampling. Here a second restaurant pan comes into play. For each “base” (thingy driven into the soil), I set up a second pan that is insulated, airtight, and has a sampling port in the top. We start a timer, and fasten the top to the bottom. What’s left is a little patch of soil that is emitting gases that are getting trapped inside of these chambers.

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Now the air in this chamber is building up with gases over time. To measure the emissions rate (i.e. N2O emissions over time), I sample the gas inside at minute 0, minute 10, minute 20, and minute 30. Then, we’ll use those four time points to say what the N2O emissions rate was for each little patch of soil. Sampling the gas is pretty rad. I take a syringe, stick it in the sampling port, suck out some air, and then put that air into air-tight glass vials. Those vials will come back to the States with me and get measured in comparison to known N2O gas mixes. Fancy stuff!

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Since I have 5 chambers at each site each time I sample, and they all need to be sampled at minute 0, 10, 20 and 30, we have a pretty streamlined set up in which every 2 minutes we move from one chamber to the next to sample. It’s pretty awesome (in the forest) and sometimes boring (in the corn) and sometimes terrible (in the soybeans). The forest is dope and there are tons of birds and cool plants. The corn I get a crazy rash on my arms every time (from being cut up by the rough corn leaves?) and the soybean fields are TERRIBLE this time of year. There’s no soy down right now, so it’s basically a bare field in the baking sun with a million biting insects everywhere and landing on your face for 75 minutes. WHY WOULD YOU BITE ME ON MY FACE???

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At the end of the gas sampling, we take a bunch of soil samples to test for like five different things, and then we roll on to the next location. Huzzah!

I have two experiments going: one looking at temporally fine-scale changes in emissions in response to “events” (rainfall, agricultural management activities), and for that I go to a subset of my sites twice a week or once a week for a bunch of weeks in a row to have some data over time and watch it for small fluctuations in response to things we hypothesize about (rainfall, agricultural management activities). The other experiment is I go to a bunch of sites only a few times over the year in order to get a more broad-scale estimate of how much N2O this landscape emits on an annual basis. In short: Q1 – what events disrupt nitrogen in this system and how? Q2 – if we want to scale up N2O emissions, approximately what annual emissions rates are associated with different land uses?

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the awesome folks that I work with down here. The IPAM field team is INCREDIBLE. It’s a bit of a field ecology cliche, but it’s very true in my experience: field teams tend to be uniformly more thoughtful about the system you’re working in, more knowledgeable about the specifics of it, better versed in the species present, and generally more capable human beings than I am, have been, or ever will be. I could not do even one bit of what I’m doing without these guys and, to a man, I adore them. Plus, they teach me Portuguese while we’re waiting two minutes to sample the next restaurant pan. Most importantly, they make sure that, as an oblivious foreigner, I don’t get eaten by snakes in the forest.

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Back in the forest

IPAM guys rocking some N2O sampling in the forest

From L to R, Bati, David, Sandro, and Ebis (IPAM field technicians) in a forest site after measuring nitrous oxide emissions and taking soil samples

I’m back in the forest! And this time around, I’m on the sampling train. Field work has been insanely busy, but I’m posting this photo (taken after a job well done in a forest plot that I’m studying) that I took of some of the IPAM staff I have the honor of working with in the field out here. Nothing too fancy for my first post back, but I’m (hopefully) back on a more regular blog posting schedule for the next long while!

Olá do Brasil!
– christine

Running the gauntlet

Imagine this scenario: you’re working in some small rural town in Virginia, and you have to take a Greyhound bus to Richmond to file a single piece of paperwork at a particular bureaucratic office that is only available there, and then take the Greyhound back to your small rural town. That sounds like an annoying way to spend a day, but pretty do-able. In any other circumstances, I would whine and complain about having to do this, but I’d google it super quickly, hop on the bus and ask folks for help along the way using my mad English skills.

Doing the same in Brazil, where I’m basically a high-functioning kindergarden student, is outrageously intimidating. My science visa is, for all intents and purposes, a working permit, and so it has to get registered with the Federal Police (“Polícia Federal”) within 30 days of entering the country either in the capital (Brasilia, an overnight bus ride away) on in the state you’ll be residing in. The closest Federal Police station to Canarana is a 5-hour bus ride away in Barra do Garcas. So yesterday morning I hopped a bus at 5 am from Canarana to Barra. No turning back at that point.

Things I was scared of: not getting off my bus in the right town, not being able to find the police station, the police station being closed for some reason, not being able to explain what I was at the police station to do, not being able to understand what was happening if I needed to do anything else, not getting my visa registered and having to do the whole thing again at some point, falling asleep on the bus ride home and overshooting my stop at Canarana, and only being able to answer any random questions that were bound to come up along the way with “what kind of juice do you have?” (I am amazing at this phrase.)

One thing I’m finding in the field is that the struggle to do regular, non-research things often leaves me feeling helpless and generally incapable. Maybe everyone else is more comfortable winging it in unfamiliar cultural environments, but I am not very good at it. I can barely feed myself when I’m in town and not in the field. During this week I ate chips in my hotel room twice for dinner after messing up my other attempts at finding sustenance. That’s not normal, I don’t think.

Given that, it’s really easy for a one-day errand to get built up in my mind as some sort of definitive referendum on whether or not I can “hack it” as a field worker in Brazil. I don’t know my way around here and barely speak the language. Why should I get to be here in Brazil to work with ecological data when there are a million Brazilians who could be doing this project just as capably (on the science side) or a lot more capably (on the everything else side)? At what point will I transition from “high-functioning kindergarden student” to “acclimated field researcher who can walk the walk in Brazil”? (Judging from my mentorship team, 8-10 years is the place to start.) What kind of crazy drain on the human capital around me am I going to be throughout that time? Long story short, am I kidding myself by being here? If I can’t get this freaking visa registered by myself, I truly fear that the answer is: yes.

I got the freaking visa registered and got home safe. And even answered some questions in Portuguese along the way. But I felt like a complete moron the entire time. Baby steps, I guess.

In the meantime, get me back to the forest where I (pretty much) know what I’m doing (sort of).

Proof o’ registration: