Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Joint Field Extravaganza

Two weeks ago we held the culminating event of the Interfaces project. 27 hydrologists, ecologists, and biogeochemists from 8 countries came to Rennes to test their scientific chops in the shadow of Mont Saint Michel. Interfaces is a Marie Curie ITN (Initial Training Network*) funded by the European Union. Besides having cool acronyms like EUROTAST, Chebana, and ACRITAS, ITNs have a goal of simultaneously doing cool science and equipping the next generation of researchers for international and interdisciplinary research. I'm one of three postdocs on the project and one of my responsibilities was to organize the Joint Field Experiment (JFE).

By train, plane, sedan, and van, our Interfaces family reunion started on Sunday April 24th. We rented three cottages in the polders, the coastal lowlands that were diked and drained in the 1800s.
An agricultural "stream" near our cottages behind the dikes.

We forgot that toilet paper wasn't included in our rental. Luckily there were 20 PhDs there so we found a solution.

On the subject of human waste, many scientists believe that nutrient pollution of freshwater and coastal zones is the most pressing environmental issue along with associated loss of biodiversity (check out the wiki on planetary boundaries). As we learn in second grade, we need safe water to drink and a whole host of bugs, fish, birds, and other critters depend on clean water for their survival. One of the goals of the interfaces project is to better understand how water moves across and through the landscape and how the elements it carries are transformed or removed to protect and restore aquatic ecosystems. We want to know where the water goes, how long it stays in the different compartments of the watershed (soil, aquifer, river etc), and what happens along the way.

First thing Monday, we toured the catchments so the different teams could figure out where to install their devices or take their measurements.  
After a coordination meeting Monday evening, we decided to focus on on two contrasting streams: the Petit Hermitage in the forest of Villecartier and the Chênelais in the corn fields and pastures. The differences in carbon and nutrient concentration (and number of cows) would let us test the streams' biological and hydrological capacity to remove pollutants.

Christophe and François sampling the pristine forest stream and the trampled agricultural one.

For the rest of the week, we split into eight teams and did some seriously big science (hoping to win bigly).

Team DTS (distributed temperature sensing) who used fiber optic cables and thermal cameras to measure stream temperature everywhere at once.
The Microbes, sampling and freezing bacteria and viruses like there was no tomorrow.

The He-Team, measuring dissolved gases with their tricked-out LaboMobile.

The Gassy Gravel Bars, sniffing for greenhouse gas emissions.
The Fluorescent Druggies, injecting everything imaginable to measure metabolism.

Team Nitrogen, fording every stream to quantify the most fabulous element.

The Lonely Diatom, looking for lost algae in the forest.

Team Groundwater, digging deep to pump you up.

We worked through the day (and sometimes through the night), installing equipment, downloading data loggers, recharging batteries, filtering water samples, and rushing along country roads to sample parallel injection points on the two streams.

Eliot taking some very precise stream length measurements preparing the deployment of the membrane-inlet mass spectrometer (MIMS) which gives real-time data of dissolved gas concentrations.

Marta, Zé, and Amalia got soaked but Guillaume managed to stay dry, sandwich and all. 

Besides the dunkings, the catastrophes were relatively pedestrian. Tamara got left in the forest, Christophe tweaked his back, one of the conductivity probes conked out, Hugo slept with the DTS for nothing, Astrid's fluorometer overwrote one of the injections, I accidentally stole François from Zahra, and the first liquid nitrogen freezing exploded everything.

In the spirit of the ITN program, Paul went interdisciplinary on us and started identifying local bones.

Watch out for the electric fencer.

Gilles did the shopping and we ate field-camp style. Nancy made burritos, Astrid made goulash, Gilles made moules, Hugo made crêpes, everyone helped with dishes, and Paul made the hand wash.

Turns out we unwittingly participated in a nationwide political action to add fluorescent dyes to streams to draw attention to water quality issues: Why are French Rivers Turning Fluorescent Green.

We'll miss you Pleine-Fougères. . .


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. now they appear. fun to get a glimpse into your work

  3. Super funny Ben!! Very nice post!! :D

  4. I like seeing what you do, mostly because it's so different than what I do!

  5. I like seeing what you do, mostly because it's so different than what I do!