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Notes from the Field

As our 2016 field campaign comes to an end, I find myself proud of all the great data we collected. Our primary objective was to sample enough sites of different ages, land use, and species composition to be able to say something meaningful about changing fire regimes and the interactions between wildfire and timber harvest. I’m confident we accomplished this. In a way though, the work has just begun. Now we must conduct laboratory tests on many coolers worth of soil, count hundreds of tree rings, pour over the data, interpret the results, and write it up for publication. But none of this would be possible without collecting the amount of high-quality field data we did.

Catherine Dieleman, preparing to dig a soil core.

Catherine Dieleman, preparing to dig a soil core.

In fact, none of this would be possible without something much more fundamental: an amazing team. We came from Massachusetts, California, Ontario, and Belgium. We are at varying stages of our careers but were all excited to be there, with our hands in the dirt collecting data. We woke up early and got home late. Our bodies were sore. There were any number of cuts, scrapes, and bruises. We were always dirty, especially the days sampling burned forests when everything you touch is covered in soot and char. Bogs and rain made for wet boots and wet socks. Oh and the bugs. When the black flies and mosquitos began to relent they were replaced by deer and horse flies.

Each team member had their personal battles, their moments and days of drudgery. But they all found a way to power through. The only complaining I heard was in jest, to lighten the mood and make for a few laughs. And we had a lot of laughs. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Given the situation, having to work hard and spend every minute of the day together, I think that is a rare and wonderful thing.

Liz Wiggins and Jocelyne LaFlamme, packed up and ready to walk to the next field site.

Liz Wiggins and Jocelyne LaFlamme, packed up and ready to walk to the next field site.

Someday soon our plots will be boiled down to points on a map, or included in a model. Some will read and cite our papers, or use a figure in a presentation. Hopefully we will have made a valuable contribution to science, and to NASA’s ABoVE campaign. But only we know what each one of those plots felt like. The young pine forests thick with prickly brush. The old-growth pine and spruce that felt so majestic in comparison. The failed plots that never were. And that one where the ‘forest chicken’ attacked us. Or was it a mini-ostrich? Hard to say. (It was a grouse.)

Someone wise once told me you can teach science and you can teach methods. But you can’t teach attitude. A positive attitude will keep you afloat through the tough times and make you appreciate the good. A bad attitude will make everything difficult. Attitude is the primary quality I look for in team members, and boy did I luck out with this crew.

Thank you to my team for making this field campaign such a great success. Thank you Jill Johnstone and her crew for all their good will and hard work. Thank you Saskatchewan for being such a lovely host. And thank you NASA for giving us this opportunity.

Until next time. Rogers field team – over and out.

Brendan Rogers is a project lead with the ABoVE campaign, and an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

As part of our field work to measure carbon emissions in burned areas, we often have to hike through an obstacle course of fallen trees to reach our research sites. I took some video with a GoPro to give a sense of what this is like, as well as how we extract soil to take measurements and how we find the perfect sites.


Elizabeth Wiggins is a PhD student in the department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.

ABoVE: Burned boreal forest — Site-seeking struggles

June 14th, 2016 by Jocelyne Laflamme

In the field, collecting the data is a big job – but our work starts long before we start taking measurements, with the task of finding desired sites within the landscape.

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

As our time in Saskatchewan progresses, choosing and finding the right places to collect data becomes progressively more difficult. We are looking for a wide range of forest ages and species composition. This becomes more and more challenging as the time passes, since we now need to find sites with the particular characteristics that we are missing. To find these places, we look at maps that show when and where fires have occurred, and combine this information with maps from logging companies that show location and dates of timber projects.

Every day, we head out to several sites that we identified the night before. We usually drive an hour or so on gravel roads, and hike several hundred meters into the forest. We check for the right species composition at the site, and use a tool called a tree borer to extract a thin cylinder from a nearby tree trunk. From this tree core, we can count the number of rings and determine the approximate age of the forest. If the forest age and species composition meet our expectations, we finally begin our data collection. If not, we return to the car and attempt another location.

It can be challenging when we don’t find what we expected, which can result from inaccuracies in the map layers we use. At times this can be frustrating, but thanks to our team’s stamina, we always eventually manage to find what we need. With only a couple days left in the field, all the gaps in our data will soon be filled.

Jocelyne Laflamme is an undergraduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the University of Guelph in Canada.

ABoVE: Fires in recently logged forests

June 10th, 2016 by Kylen Solvik

Since our last post, our team has moved an hour south to the small village of Weyakwin, where the Philion fire burned last year. There is a lot of logging Weyakwin, and we are very interested in the interactions between fires and logging. We are comparing burned forests that grew back after people cut trees, to those that grew back after an earlier forest fire.

 Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

We believe there could be differences between the two in burn severity and the amount of carbon released by the fire. When a plot is harvested for lumber, the logs are removed but the soil remains. This is the opposite of burned areas, where fire burns into the soils but a lot of the trees remain standing, albeit charred. To study these differences, we are searching for areas of burn and harvest origin that are about the same age. We have seen some very young burned sites, many were less than 10 years old when they burned. This is surprising since forests in boreal regions typically burn when they are 50 to 100 years old. We were shocked to find a burned plot that had been harvested only a year or two earlier. Even without any significant trees or shrubs to carry the flames, the soil was able to sustain the fire.

At the sample sites, my job is to help characterize and quantify the aboveground biomass. This includes trees, shrubs, and dead trees that have fallen over, called “coarse woody debris.” I work with Brendan Rogers, our team leader, to measure every tree within a 2-by-30 meter sampling area. We identify the tree species, rate the amount of the canopy consumption, and measure the diameter. We will use these numbers to estimate how much carbon was released when that tree burned. Most of these tasks are fairly straightforward — although it can sometimes be tricky to differentiate between similar tree species after they have burned. We can measure individual trees pretty quickly, but it can still take one or even two hours to work through an entire site. At one site, we counted over 350 trees, measuring the diameter and estimating the canopy consumption for each and every one!

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

In Weyakwin, we are staying at a small bed & breakfast. Our host, a wonderful lady named Rita, takes great care of us. She cooks us breakfast and dinner, and she even packs us brown bag lunches for us to grab on our way out. After going out for dinner every night at our previous lodging in La Ronge, it has been a great change of pace eating home-cooked meals. We will be staying with Rita for the next week, and then we will be returning to Saskatoon to fly back to our respective homes. One of our team members, Catherine Dieleman, left early for her friend’s wedding. We will miss her and her soil expertise dearly.

But there are a lot more sites to sample before we are done!


Kylen Solvik is a research assistant at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

NAAMES-II Expedition: June 7, 2016 (FINAL Blog)

June 8th, 2016 by Kristina Mojica

Sometimes, science can be amazing. Sometimes, scientists can be amazing. When these two elements come together, anticipate great things.

The North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems (NAAMES) study is an interdisciplinary investigation of planktonic ecosystems, the processes that over the course of each year recreate the largest phytoplankton bloom on Earth, and the link between these biological processes and atmospheric aerosols and clouds. NAAMES is one of five NASA Earth Venture Suborbital-2 (EVS-2) missions. But in my mind, it is the NAMES of NAAMES that set this mission apart from all others.

Friday afternoon, the aircraft team and the NASA C-130 returned home from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Sunday around noon, the research vessel Atlantis was tethered once more to a dock in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The second campaign of the NAAMES mission has come to a close. We are all tired. We are all victorious. From rough seas to irreparable airplane engines, this campaign has seen its challenges. As Principal Investigator of the mission, I continue to be amazed by and grateful for the team’s ability to overcome such obstacles and deliver on our objectives. Everyone involved is dedicated to this work and the knowledge it seeks to gain regarding the functioning of our home planet.

My own official role in the NAAMES field campaigns is to orchestrate the science activities on the Atlantis and coordinate the ship’s work with the aircraft team. In other words, I do my best to help and, most importantly, stay out of the way of the other scientists doing their wondrous work.

I have spent well over two years of my life on research vessels. Yet, I still find it is hard to fully explain what the experience is like. I think my most significant step to this end was during the first NAAMES campaign, where I decided to “leave it to a professional” and invited Nichole Estaphan to join the cruise and “tell our story”. Thank god she accepted the invitation! If you haven’t read her blog from that trip, you really should check it out! It’s posted on the NAAMES website.

Now, while I’m not a communications professional, let me give this a go just for fun. As a start, try to image being placed in a group of 50 people you don’t know, being locked in a building that is only about 300 feet long and a few stories high, working all hours of the day every day of the week for a month on end, and then having the building placed on a random rocking table that is constantly trying to knock you off your feet. Yes, that might be a good visual to start with…. Now image all of those 50 people and under those conditions continuously getting along, helping each other out, and staying positive and engaged in the work from the day you enter the building to the day you leave. Yeah, that’s about it. That is the NAAMES team. The ocean-going and airborne scientists, the ship’s captain and crew, and the aircraft support team in Saint John’s and at home. These are the NAMES of NAAMES. Simply amazing!

Beyond the scope of the NAAMES mission, this campaign has also had a personal side to it for me. I’ve always wanted to go to the North Atlantic and experience the bloom first hand. Yeah I know, clearly something from the ‘bucket list’ of a total nerd, but what can I say. I guess one thing I can say is that it was really, really cool! As a biological oceanographer, you simply cannot finish graduate school without hearing (and reading) loads and loads about the North Atlantic bloom. Consequently, I went to the field this May with some ‘expectations’ of what we would see and find. And the best part about it was that I was repeatedly surprised at how wrong my expectations often were. I was surprised that, despite being in the thick of the bloom from the tip of Greenland to the northern edge of the Atlantic gyre, we almost never saw phytoplankton populations dominated by diatoms (the text books will tell you that diatoms dominate the bloom). I was surprised by the diversity and dynamics of the plankton. I was surprised by relationships we measured between the growth of phytoplankton and the predators (including virus) that consume them. I was surprised by the signals we saw in the aerosols above the ocean. Alright, let me just summarize it all up in three words, “I was surprised”. And, can there be anything more exciting or satisfying for a scientist than finding that your expectations are incorrect and that you still have an awful lot to learn about how natural ecosystems, and the Earth System in general, operates? At least for me, it is the best i can hope for! I’m looking forward the next two NAAMES campaigns….

As a final note to all of you who have followed our blog over the past month, thank you so much! We love what we’re doing out here and the work is interesting and important, but the experience is made so much richer for us by knowing that others are interested too and following our adventures and discoveries.

There are many who wish
to swim with dolphins,
and perhaps it is transformative.
But as for me,
I prefer to drift among the plankton,
to dream of their world
and its intricate web
the strands of which
I have yet to fathom.

written by Michael Behrenfeld