My Images of Research entry sums up the creativity, beauty, complexity and plain mundanity of fieldwork

My fieldwork photograph has made it to the final of the University of Strathclyde’s Images of Research 2018 competition. The photo was taken in Spring 2017 when Dr Andrew Feitz (Geoscience Australia) and I were measuring CO2 degassing rates at a site of natural CO2 degassing associated with a spring emerging near a creek bed in Victoria (Australia). The image shows Andrew sat at the edge of the creek staring at our technically savvy CO2 measuring apparatus, which is strapped to a tree branch. Andrew looks a bit bored. He has to be as still has he can for several minutes. So at this moment he is mimicking a statue of a scientist. From the photo, you can’t tell that the apparatus has been placed in a specific spot, floating above a point (one of over fifty in the creek) where CO2 bubbles emerge from the creek bed. These bubbles rise vertically through the limited water in the creek (the pond in the dried up creek bed is pretty much stagnant) and ripple the water surface with a quiet and unassuming ‘blurp…bloop….bullup’. Andrew and I are measuring the amount of CO2 degassing at these bubble sites to establish the best way of quantifying CO2 seepage in aqueous environments. We are complementing this work with a study of the bedrock geology through which the bubbles emerge to establish the structural or other controls on the bubble locations and degassing rates. This research is relevant to informing the monitoring and measurement protocols at geologically engineered sites such as those used for Carbon Capture and Storage, where man-made CO2 is captured and disposed of in deep rock reservoirs as a climate change mitigation technology. There are other, wider applications of the work, including environmental monitoring of coal bed methane, fracking, and gas measurement technologies or algorithms.

The concept of us modifying our technical equipment with a Trusty Stick foraged from the forest floor and taped on with electrical tape also sums up the creativity of fieldwork. (Incidentally the electrical tape came in very useful when my glasses spontaneously fell apart during the field excursion.) In case of emergency - innovate! is the title of the photo, and I want to explain quite how the Trusty Stick is improving our field data. The equipment that we are using is a WEST Systems Portable Fluxmeter with a LI-820 CO2 detector. It costs rather a lot of money and belongs to Geoscience Australia. In the photo you can see the fancy metal accumulation chamber (equipped with pressure and temperature monitors). This was already modified by Geoscience Australia collaborators with a ‘buoyancy jacket’ of pipes that means the chamber floats with its base only just submerged in the water. The sturdy yellow box contains the really brainy part - the gas analyser and data computer. I took the photo of Andrew and, as well as the camera (ahem, my phone), I am holding the pocket-sized computer that manages the instrument and displays the real time results. Behind me on the creek bank are piles of stuff including tape measures, notebooks, geological compass, our water and food, wellies (or gumboots according to Andrew), and a really precise GPS measuring system that allows us to very accurately measure bubble point locations. Both of us are fully covered to protect from various Australian fauna and UV.

Trusty Stick allowed us to reach bubble points from the creek edge rather than standing in the creek. This was necessary because while surveying at a different CO2 spring we noticed that when we stood in the river bed to get the far-off bubble points the gas pathways were disrupted. Either our body mass or the sediment disturbance from our movement was affecting the bubbling locations. Given the purpose of our research we didn’t want our presence to disturb the degassing process, and so we engineered the Trusty Stick method. When taking measurements with or without Trusty Stick, the person holding the chamber in place had to be very careful and very still. The volume within the chamber had to remain a known constant, and so the bottom rim of the chamber had to be equally submerged (aided by the buoyancy aid) meaning no weight could be put on the chamber. The chamber needed to capture a single bubbling point, and remain above it, and we needed to keep it as still as possible. This relatively sedentary fieldwork left us with surprising aches pains and strains! To make things more fun, many of the bubble streams were discontinuous. That is, the bubbles started and stopped with intervals of up to half an hour in between (testament to the very low degassing rates and the degassing mechanism). So, we had to capture the emissions while bubbling was active, which meant that when selecting where next to take bubble readings one of us would stare intently at the water surface for active bubbles while the other would check which points we had measured and for how long. Then, if we were to go for it, there would be a careful scramble to get the equipment over the bubble for as long as it was active, or perhaps longer if we could catch several bubble cycles. So, there was a great deal of teamwork in this exercise!

But my photo doesn’t communicate all of this. To me, my photo communicates the essence of fieldwork. When I look at the photo, I am transported back to the creek side. I am poised, staring at the small screen in my hand which is telling me the CO2 readings and other data, and waiting for the readings to be completed. I hear the gentle, sporadic, bubbles and the different tones they make. I hear the noise of the forest, smell the eucalyptus from the trees and the distinct smell of damp from the flocculant algae in the water. And I get that ‘fieldwork feeling’. The fieldwork feeling is one of excitement and fatigue. It is one of practical, physical and mental ups and downs. A pick and mix of thoughts, logistics, faff, lugging heavy items, planning, reading, counting things, writing things, measuring things, poring over maps, pondering various explanatory models, checking equipment and so on, and also making sure you are hydrated, appropriately protected from the elements and from the surrounding flora and fauna. Field days are long. Time plays with you – seeming to leap forward one moment only to progress at snail’s pace the next. You need to make sure that all the important or necessary data is collected in the limited time available. Some tasks are complex and technical, such as setting up the sensors. Other tasks are hilarious - balancing in wellies on a wet algae-coated rock leads to much entertainment. The tasks may be fun and creative (like locating and then taping a stick to our technically advanced and expensive piece of equipment - more on that later) or peaceful and repetitive (taking orientation data for cracks and layers in the bed rock, measuring distances). Other tasks are incredibly simple and mundane, like waiting for minutes for the reading to be completed, one of us playing statue. While waiting, Andrew and I discussed aspects of fieldwork, chatted about the present (e.g. level of hunger, our surroundings) or otherwise (comparing notes on the quality of our morning coffee, probing lifetheuniverseandeverything), or we were each lost in thought – perhaps problem solving regarding the fieldwork, organising the questions and ‘to dos’ that buzz through the mind, or simply zoned out in the sedate, peaceful mundanity of data gathering. So, to me, this photo sums up – and transports me to - fieldwork.

My photograph won the Measurement Science and Enabling Technologies category and is one of seven to go to public vote. The point of the competition is to share and showcase the breadth of research within the University and is a tremendous successful initiative; a selection of photos is displayed outside Glasgow Science Centre and a travelling exhibit tours the UK and further afield. So, I am delighted that the photo got shortlisted (I submitted a second, more science-looking ‘artsy’ photo of lab research to a different category, which didn’t make it through). I am even more delighted that the photo is category winner. And I hope now you know why I submitted this image to the competition.

The next stage is for an overall winner to be decided by public vote. You can view all of the shortlisted entries on the website, and vote for your favourite 2018 category-winning entry at: https://www.imagesofresearch.strath.ac.uk/vote.php. The overall winner and runners up will be announced at a drinks reception at Drygate Brewery, Glasgow on 14th June as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. For more information and to register to attend, visit: https://www.engage.strath.ac.uk/event/433

Thank you to UKCCSRC, Geoscience Australia and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde for supporting this fieldwork and my international secondment to work with the CCS community in Australia.

 

Author(s): 
J. Roberts
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