Understandable Earth Science

Snakes & Ladders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good and successful scientist, and I keep coming back to resilience. A lot of people don’t realise that doing scientific research can be incredibly frustrating, and it often feels like you are taking one step forwards and two or three steps backwards. A bit like playing a game of snakes and ladders.

Snake&Ladder

In scientific academia, “success” is generally measured by getting your research peer reviewed and published, and, ideally this then being used by other scientists to help their own research. But successfully completing a research project and getting it published is a lot of hard work – loads of things can go right or wrong, and sometimes this is just down to luck rather than skill.

Let’s think about all the steps in an academic science research project, and some of the more common pitfalls.

  • First, you might need to collect samples to carry out experiments on. Depending on your research question this could be as easy as opening a chemical store cupboard, or it could require intensive fieldwork in remote places (or, for planetary scientists and cosmologists, sending robots to even more remote places like Mars or comets). For a selection of examples of how things can go wrong in the field, check out #FieldworkFails on Twitter. Also, thanks to the human error element in shipping companies, getting your samples and / or equipment back to the lab isn’t always straightforward.
  • Once you have your samples, you need to carry out your experiment. This might involve expensive, specialised equipment. There might only be one or two labs in your entire country (or even none) that have this equipment, and so those people-skills, that scientists are stereotypically famous for not having, come in really handy here for negotiating instrument time.
  • You have your experiments scheduled – great stuff. Often, everything will go according to plan. But some instruments and techniques are so sensitive they could be considered temperamental; malfunctioning air conditioning, computer crashes, power cuts, vacuum pump failures, urgent and unanticipated instrument maintenance, unexpectedly incompatible samples – these are all issues that have delayed my data collection at some point in the past.
  • Once you have your data, things get interesting. In an ideal world, this data will answer a deep and meaningful scientific question. But in reality, you look at the data and realise that you weren’t quite asking the right question, or that the experiment design wasn’t quite right and you either need to re-do the experiment in a different way, or collect some extra data. This is something that does improve with experience. But most science is about discovering new stuff, or confirming existing hypotheses in different ways, so this risk never goes away completely. In short, science is an iterative process where you are constantly testing, evaluating, and retesting your ideas (and coming to terms with that can be quite painful for scientists-in-training).
  • Once your data is fit for purpose, it is time to start evaluating it and writing it up. In my experience, this usually involves a few more iterations of the hypothesis, and occasionally some more rounds of data collection to polish things up. This is also the part where the quality and enthusiasm of your collaborators can have a big impact on the project’s success – especially for junior researchers or for projects in a politically sensitive environment. Collaborator attitudes can either be a springboard to success, or a dragging weight that can even kill off a project all together.
  • Congratulations – you and your co-authors have successfully created a manuscript describing your work. Time to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. Now. If you haven’t submitted at least one paper, you probably have no idea just how hellish a paper submission can be (it is a close second behind university job applications for irritating faff!). Even if you carefully read all of the author instructions when formatting your paper, there is usually something that gets missed. References aren’t formatted correctly. You thought you could submit figures as jpegs but they only accept tiffs. You need to suggest 5 reviewers, not the usual 2-3. Your abstract is 7 words too long. You have to provide a “highlights” file. A graphical abstract is compulsory. Things are improving, and more and more journals are now accepting initial submissions in “your paper your way” form; that means you submit a single word file with figures in line with the text, rather than uploading a separate manuscript file with figure captions listed at the end, and uploading each image separately. But it is still a pain. I always think it should be a half-an-hour job to submit a paper, but it always takes me at least half a day.
  • Now, sit back and wait for the peer review. Peer review is one of the foundations of science. Your scientific peers check your work, highlight any problems, and suggest ways to improve the work. This is supposed to ensure that only high quality work gets published. I am a big fan of the concept of peer review, but it has its problems, mostly relating to reviewers and editors being human, likely overworked, and things like egos and bias getting in the way. Now, I am a firm believer that, 90% of the time, if a reviewer hasn’t understood an aspect of the work, then that means I need to explain it better. But most researchers have, at some point in their careers, received a peer review where the reviewer has clearly not even tried to understand the material, and is intent on forcing their own biases onto the subject. Communities such as Facebook’s 11,000+ member group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped and the Twitter account Shit My Reviewers Say, with more than 37,000 followers, are testament to the ubiquity of this problem. Sometimes, the scientific editor handling your submission will realise what is happening and place less weight on this kind of review. Other times they might not.
  • Once the peer review is complete, the scientific editor will make a decision: Accept as is (this is quite rare, at least in Earth Sciences); Revise (i.e. address all the reviewer comments – sometimes this will go back out for peer review; and nowadays this may come in the form of a “reject and resubmit” decision so that journals can appear to keep their article processing times down); Reject. Reasons for rejection might just be that the journal isn’t the most appropriate host for the work, or that the science is thought to be unsound.
  • For revisions, the journal usually allows between 1 and 3 months to complete the revisions, depending on how major they are. They might include things like changing the language style, clarifying points, making diagrams clearer, considering new ideas or information, and even collecting a bit more data or re-evaluating some conclusions. Sometimes a major revision decision can leave you feeling like you are back at square 1.
  • Once accepted, then comes all the publication admin. Transfer of copyright, creative commons licences, etc. (I have a life goal to one day properly understand these). Colour printing options / charges (some journals even charge for colour figures in online versions of papers!). And then there are the copy editors. The journal passes your accepted manuscript to a copy editor who formats the article ready for publication and ensures the text matches the journal’s preferred style. They then send you an article proof to check over and approve. A lot of the time, this is a smooth process, but there are also plenty of times where the proof seems to have been created by badly programmed robots. I have had to correct things like figures appearing in the text 2 pages before they are first discussed, tables being mis-formatted, and place names having their first letter changed to lower case. One time I spent nearly a week persuading a copy editor to reinstate some hyphens when talking about “pre- and post-combustion CO2 capture” because the journal policy was to not hyphenate words.
  • A few years ago, you might still be waiting a few months for your paper to be published once it has been accepted, but this is less of an issue nowadays, thanks to journals being online. Having said that, some journals are still oversubscribed; one of my recent papers was accepted back in 2016, but not officially published for almost a year, In the meantime, the unformatted accepted manuscript was available online, but I had to wait months for the journal-formatted version.
  • So, finally – your paper is out. It has passed peer review and been published. Congratulations! But the journey to success doesn’t stop here. You need to do this again. Lots. And the papers you have published need to be impactful – other scientists need to read them, use the information, and cite your papers. But that is a whole new chapter to think about 😉

There are so many things out of your direct control, that can go wrong or right during research. Skill takes you a long way. But you also need luck. Or failing that, a LOT of resilience.

My PhD fieldwork involved collecting rock samples from subglacially erupted lavas in Iceland, which involved climbing up 100 m high scree slopes; for every 3 steps up, I would slide 1-4 steps back down. So in many ways, my PhD fieldwork was a fitting metaphor for scientific research. Similarly, in many ways, it is like the game Snakes and Ladders.

Loðmundur

Loðmundur (Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland) formed during a rhyolite eruption around 184 thousand years ago, beneath a glacier. Subglacial eruptions tend to produce big piles of scree, with solid material at the top of the edifice, if the eruption breaks through the ice cap and / or meltwater can drain away. This is not so much fun when you need to collect samples of the solid in situ material, because it means you have to climb hundreds of meters up scree slopes to collect the rock samples. For more information on Loðmundur and Kerlingarfjöll, see my paper here https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00445-010-0344-0.

A sense of humour and feeling of solidarity is one of the best things to help maintain resilience. So, to help my fellow researchers, I created Snakes and Ladders: The Science Edition.

Snakes & Ladders

Print me to play!

The full file is designed to be printed in landscape orientation on A3 paper. There are even science-themed counters to cut out and play with. If the above image won’t download in a high enough resolution, you can download a full resolution version here (select “download” from the top right hand corner of the window).

So, if your research is getting you down, take a break. Play a game, and remind yourself that you need to keep rolling that die to move forwards.

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Baseline sampling at CMC’s Field Research Station, Alberta, Canada

Last November, Stuart Gilfillan and I flew out to Alberta Canada, courtesy of UKCCSRC’s international cooperation fund, to collect baseline samples from the Carbon Management Canada’s Field Research Station.

The Field Research Station (FRS) is an exciting project set up by the University of Calgary, that will inject CO2 a few hundred meters below ground and monitor its migration through, and interaction within the subsurface. The monitoring will be carried out by surface gas monitoring, a deep monitoring well at the same depth as the injection horizon, and monitoring of shallow water wells. The University of Edinburgh is a project partner and will investigate the use of noble gases as tracers for CO2 storage. For this approach to be successful, well defined baselines are required and so our task was to collect deep and shallow fluid samples to characterise the baseline noble gases at the site.

Pic1-FRS

Arriving at the FRS

After some minor flight delays and rescheduling (thanks to the helpful BA staff) we arrived in Calgary to check in with Don Lawton, Director of the Containment and Monitoring Institute (CaMI), and Mike Nightingale, Calgary’s resident gas sampling and analysis expert, before heading west to the town of Brookes.

The next day we awoke to a spectacular sunrise, and headed to the FRS site to spend a long day collecting samples from the on-site wells. The monitoring well’s fluid recovery system needed to be purged a few times before we could collect samples, and separating the gas bubbling off from the fluid proved to be a little trickier than anticipated, but with Mike’s help we managed to collect both gas and fluid samples. The weather on the site was blazing sunshine with brilliant blue skies, but on the windy side, thanks to the site being situated on the Canadian prairie. November is goose migration season and the skies were full of flocks of Snow and Canada Geese.

Pic4-U-tube

Mike and Stuart optimising the gas separator to collect samples from the monitoring well’s fluid recovery system.

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Stuart and Mike collecting gassy fluid samples from the on-site shallow water well.

The next day, we managed to arrange access to one of the nearby Cenovus natural gas wells to collect a sample of the deeper geological fluids and test whether they influence the natural baseline of the site.

Sampling natural gas

Stuart sampling from a natural gas well

Our sampling mission overall went very efficiently, leaving us plenty of time to arrange shipment of the samples back to the lab (where they will be analysed by PhD student Rachel Wignall), and allowing a bit of time to check out the local Geotourism highlights. Alberta is home to the UNESCO world heritage site of Dinosaur Provincial Park, which hosts some fantastic badlands landscapes and a lot of dinosaur fossils. The weather continued to hold out for us, with sunny skies and reaching 19 °C in the dinosaur park valleys, which is spectacularly warm for Canada in November; a timely reminder that global warming is happening, and that researching techniques to monitor the safety of CO2 storage is more important than ever.

This blog  post is also available on UKCCRSC’s blog site.

In January 2016, Stuart Gilfillan and I (Stephanie Flude) made the long drive from Edinburgh to Beighton, Sheffield to collect some gas samples from UKCCSRC’s Pilot-Scale Advanced CO2-Capture Technology (PACT) facility. The PACT facility hosts a state of the art, pilot-scale CO2 amine-capture plant that can capture CO2 in flue gases from either a 250kW air/oxyfuel combustion plant (that can burn coal, biomass or gas) or one of the two 330kW gas turbines also hosted at the facility.

The PACT Core Facility entrance and the amine capture absorber and desorber columns.

As we are Earth Scientists, rather than Engineers, we are researching reliable means to trace the fate of CO2 once it has been injected below ground for geological storage. As part of that research we are investigating how the captured CO2 itself can be used as a geochemical tracer. This means I have spent much of the last couple of years tracking down sources of man-made CO2 to sample, and swapping my usual field gear – walking boots, waterproof coat and rock hammer – for steel toe capped shoes, hi-vis jackets, torque wrenches and high pressure hosing. We wanted to collect as many different types of CO2 as possible – from different capture techniques and from different feedstocks, and so collecting samples from PACT was an obvious option.

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Our typical gas sampling equipment – no rock hammers here!

We had arranged to visit while both biomass and natural gas were being air-combusted in the 250 kW plant, allowing us to collect samples derived from two different fuel stocks. We were also hoping to collect gas samples from different parts of the carbon capture system, so we could better understand, and ultimately predict, what controls the inherent fingerprint of captured CO2. For this, we wanted to collect samples of the fuel, the combustion flue gas, the residual gas from the amine absorber column, and the final captured CO2:

pact-schem

Schematic of our ideal gas sampling strategy.

The staff at PACT were very keen to help us collect this range of samples, but early discussions raised some problems with how to collect the samples. The PACT facility had been designed incredibly efficiently, with multiple gas analysis instruments housed on site that directly tap and analyse the gas of interest. Unfortunately for us, this efficient design meant that very few external sampling ports were installed on the system – why add sample ports when you can simply flow the gas you want straight to your analyser? After discussions with Kris Milkowski and Martin Murphy, we settled on the idea of collecting samples from the exhaust vent of PACT’s FTIR system, with some supplementary samples collected straight from an external tap on a combustion flue gas pipe.

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Stuart collecting a sample of combustion flue gas from the flue pipe

Once on site, we spent a few minutes working out the best way to connect our sampling equipment (copper tubes, clamps, and gas-sample bags) to the available ports and how to ensure a strong enough flow of gas to sample. We collected from the flue pipe first and then moved across to the FTIR hut. Sampling here was a little more hectic as we had a 4 minute window to collect the sample while the FTIR was purging the gas of interest. We need to be very careful to avoid air contamination in our samples, and standard procedure for this is to purge our equipment with the gas we are collecting for at least two minutes, leaving just two minutes to collect the sample and hook up the sampling assembly for the next sample.

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Stuart explaining our sampling procedure to Kris in the FTIR hut.

By the end of the visit, we had managed to collect combustion flue gas, absorber outlet, and captured CO2 from both gas and biomass feedstocks. With the critical sampling tasks out of the way, we were treated to a tour of the combustion rig by János Szuhánszki.

Janos introducing Steph and Stuart to the combustion rig.

So what happens next? We have spent the last year analysing the samples for their inherent geochemical and isotopic fingerprint.  We have measured the carbon and oxygen isotope composition (δ13C and δ18O) of the captured CO2, and concentrations and isotope ratios of trace noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon) that are present in the captured CO2 stream. The results have just been submitted in a manuscript to the International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control, so keep an eye open for that in the near future.

A version of this article also appears on the UKCCSRC Blog site.

Welcome to Part 3 of my blog sharing some of my Indonesian fieldwork experiences as part of the Soa Basin Project. My previous post described life on the archaeological excavations in the Soa Basin, but a lot of the work I did was spent further afield, hunting down layers of volcanic deposits that could be used to correlate between different excavation sites. Most of the time, I was working with my colleague Ruly, a geologist at Badan Geologi (The Geological Agency of Indonesia) and University of Wollongong PhD student, who appears in many of the photos below. This blog entry describes some of the fieldwork conditions; I’ll cover more about the geology and volcanoes of the area in a later blog post.

Out in the field, it was hot. So hot that I started strapping bottles of water to the outside of my bag and by lunchtime it was warm enough to make a decent cup of coffee with. One of the first rules of working in the tropics is to seek out shade wherever possible. You know the way a cat will find and sit in the patch of sunlight coming through a window? In the field, we do the opposite. That wasn’t always possible, and we would sometimes have to collect pumice samples from white cliffs of volcanic tephra in direct sunshine. Needless to say, it was hot and sweaty work! But it turns out that volcanic dust makes an excellent sunscreen – I never got sunburnt on sampling days.

Lunch in the field was usually similar to dinner – sandwiches aren’t really a thing in Indonesia, so we would pick up a bag of rice and baked fish and / or chicken in the morning to take with us. On particularly hot days the food would be hot by lunchtime, as though it had only just been cooked within the last half an hour  (thankfully and surprisingly, we didn’t get food poisoning).

There were two main types of field terrain in my field area. The centre of the Soa Basin is generally flat, but with deeply incised river canyons; a lot of vegetation had been cleared in the past for farming and cattle grazing, giving a dry, scrubby grassland that is easy to navigate. The edge of the basin is host to many volcanoes – some of which have erupted historically and some of which are probably extinct. Much of the area around these volcanoes is densely vegetated jungle, probably because the volcano flanks are so steep they aren’t worth clearing for agriculture.

01c SoaVolcanoes

Google Terrain map showing the volcanoes surrounding  the Soa Basin

During my first field season, we thought it would be a good idea to explore the surrounding volcanoes to collect samples and start building up a geochemical database of local volcanism. Most of these volcanoes are steep sided and covered in tropical rainforest or tall grass and a lot of the time was spent hunting for rock exposures (sometimes without success). I didn’t have my own machete (not the easiest thing to take on a plane…) and so Ruly did most of the Bushwhacking; seeing his back disappearing into the jungle became a very familiar sight.

The grass on many volcano flanks was deceptive. From a relatively close distance, it looked short and easy to walk through and there were many times when we aimed for this kind of terrain (like the hill in the background above-left), thinking it would be easy walking. But when you get closer, the grass turns out to be 1-2 m high and even harder to walk through than the jungle-vegetation.

One day, we spent over 2 hours fighting our way through just 400 m of this grass to reach some rocks exposed at the top of a small satellite cone on the flanks of Keli Lambo. (Annoyingly, we then had to make the same journey back again, but this time laden with rock samples). Another day, we were lucky enough to find an irrigation channel running through the jungle inside Welas Caldera, that we were able to walk along the top of, with minimal bushwhacking. We managed to not fall into the channel, but unfortunately didn’t find any rock exposures to investigate.

Often the best exposures were in river channels and these sometimes contained spectacular dried up waterfalls. I was itching to get a closer look at the stratigraphy exposed in these cliffs, and sometimes we were able to safely find our way to the base of the exposure, but often they were too steep to access without rock climbing equipment. Sometimes, the jungle in these dried up river canyons was so dense that we struggle to get a GPS reading once we had managed to find some rock exposures to sample.

Other times, rocks were exposed in rivers that hadn’t dried up, and these often gave us some fun close encounters with the local “wildlife”.

Away from the rivers, wildlife encounters were still common, especially with arthropods. I learnt early on to be very careful when handling interesting looking rocks, after finding a scorpion on the underside of a rock I had picked up to look at more closely (I probably should have already realised this, after finding a scorpion in my bed).

Then there were the spiders! Apart from the Huntsmen that hung around one of the houses we stayed in, I didn’t see many spiders on Flores. But the ones I did see were impressive. I have seen the stripy orb-weaver spiders before and *almost* find them more beautiful than I find them scary. I saw a couple of these hanging on webs in dried grass, usually next to a path.

The only other spiders I saw in the field were so terrifyingly big, they stopped me from sampling a lava flow exposed in a stream cutting. We were looking for rock exposures to sample on Ambulobo and spotted an exposed lava in a dry waterfall behind a bridge. We spotted a route down from the road to the river bed, but there was a massive spider web hanging over the gap in vegetation that would be the river in the wet season. On this web were three absolutely massive spiders – each had a leg span of about 20 cm (take a ruler, look at how big 20 cm, and then imagine the above photo as that size!). They were black and red and looked evil (although I have since been told that that they are just harmless orbweavers). I decided that we could probably manage without that lava sample. Ruly was much braver than me!

Other encounters included a creature that built itself a cage before turning into a chrysalis, and giant grasshoppers.

Most of the time it was just me and Ruly in the field along with our driver (one of the local people who owned a 4WD truck and hired it out to the Soa Basin project). But we often met people while in the field, even in the middle of the jungle. It wasn’t uncommon to find a family farm, or even a small traditional village. Most of the time people were friendly and helpful and we sometimes hired them for a few hours to show us the way to rock exposures. One family fed us cups of tea and deep fried peanuts while we were waiting for our driver to pick us up, and the mother gave me a beautiful tobacco bag that she had made. Another time, while we were examining an exposure fairly close to a road, a truck full of people spotted us, stopped and then insisted we take their photo(?).

Overall, the fieldwork was hard work, under quite difficult conditions. But the friendly people we met in the field, combined with the consistently stunning landscapes of the area made the work enjoyable (even when I spent all day becoming increasingly covered in volcanic ash whilst sampling).

 

 

Welcome to Part 2 of my blog where I share some of my experiences of carrying out fieldwork in Indonesia as part of the So’a Basin Project . For this post, I am going to focus on the archaeological sites because I know that the workings of a large archaeological dig are a bit of a mystery to most people. To be fair, they are still a bit of a mystery to me – I was there mostly to take geological samples and to help constrain the stratigraphy of the area – but just being on the site, listening to the (very loud) chink of hammers and seeing a stegodon tusk slowly revealing itself a little more everyday was just fascinating.

The So’a Basin Project has various excavation sites scattered across the area, and thanks to the lack of vegetation, some of these show up really well on Google Earth.

Excavations from up high

Google Earth images of some of the excavations in the So’a Basin

The biggest of these excavations is a site called Mata Menge (the middle arrow on the above diagram), and it was near here that the So’a Basin team recently found hominid fossils. The site is a series of trenches, covered with tarpaulin to keep the sun (and very occasional rain shower) off both the workers and the trenches. These were very necessary as temperatures could easily reach 40 °C during the day.

As well as all of the archaeologists, geologists and other scientists visiting the site, the Project hired many people from the surrounding villages to help with the excavation. Each active trench had an experienced archaeologist as a manager, and a number of workers who had been trained to carefully excavate the sediment and rock in the trench, and identify whether a feature was archaeologically interesting (e.g. an artifact, fossil, or change in stratigraphy) and report it to the trench manager, who would note its location and investigate it further.

There were often dozens of people simultaneously using hammers and chisels to excavate the trenches; the first few times you hear this sound it is quite amazing, but it soon develops into a kind of musical background rhythm, that you only notice most when it stops as soon as the whistle blows for lunch break.

At the end of the day, the location of all of the finds (artifacts and fossils) needed to be measured and logged. This was a two-person job with one person taking a levelling rod to each find-location and placing it above each find, and another person manning the Total Station (a combined theodolite and EDM – electronic distance measurement) to measure (very precisely) the location of the find. This could easily add an extra 2-3 hours onto the end of the day if there were lots of finds that day.

Being very pale-skinned and a red-head (albeit out of a bottle), I am used to my appearance drawing a lot of attention when I visit hotter climates. This was exacerbated on my first trip to Mata Menge as I arrived near the end of the season, so was also the unusual newcomer. I lost count of the times I would be taking a sample from the wall of a trench and look up to realise that I had attracted an audience. Sometimes they were wondering if I needed any help, but other times they just wanted to watch whatever I was doing.

The trenches themselves were fairly free of local wildlife, but the wider area was grazed by local cattle and horses, and it wasn’t unusual to encounter a herd of buffalo or other exotic cattle while walking between sites.

Another site, about a 15 minute walk from Mata Menge, is Wolo Sege. It was here that Adam Brumm et. al. found some stone artefacts right below an ignimbrite deposit that was dated to ~ 1 million years ago. As a British, wannabe volcanologist, I was especially interested in this Wolo Sege Ignimbrite, because I don’t often get chance to look at ignimbrites that are younger than 450 million years old. It has everything a volcanologist could want – ash, pumice, accretionary lapilli and crystals (and when I say crystals, I mean shiny, 1 cm amphibole crystals – quite impressive!). The entire unit is about 3 m thick at Wolo Sege (the thickness varies where it has been identified at different sites across the region), and the top 2 m of that is ash (only the bottom part is shown on the photo below). There is a lot of ash mixed in with the pumice, and that, along with all the accretionary lapilli, suggests that there was a lot of water involved in this eruption – whether it was because of a rain storm, or erupting through a lake, we don’t yet know, though.

Wolo Sege Ignimbrite

Photo of the type-section of the Wolo Sege Ignimbrite, referenced to my stratigraphic log, and a close up of accretionary lapilli in the upper ash unit. Can you spot the accretionary lapilli clast in the ash below the pumice?

At the end of the excavation season, the trenches need to be protected to stop any partially-excavated, or as-yet-unexcavated finds being damaged by exposure. Exposed fossils are sealed in a protective gypsum plaster cast, after which plastic sheeting is laid at the base of the trench, and then all the material that has been dug out is used to fill the trenches back in again. This protects and preserves the site ready for the next season, while making it relatively easy to identify how far down you had excavated the year before.

So, that is life on an Indonesian excavation. However, I spent most of my time away from the excavation sites exploring the surrounding countryside, trying to correlate volcanic units, and I will tell you more about that in the next blog.

Mata Menge

Overview panorama of Mata Menge.

Between 2011 and 2014 I was working at the Quaternary Dating Laboratory in Denmark. For part of my work there, I was involved with the So’a Basin Project, headed by the University of Wollongong, Australia. Some exciting new finds from the project have just been published in Nature along with their age and stratigraphic context and so I thought I would share some of my fieldwork experiences from my time working on the project.

The So’a Basin is in the middle of the Indonesian island of Flores, 75 km east of Liang Bua – “The Hobbit” (a.k.a. Homo floresiensis) cave. The basin contains sediments up to ~ 1 million years old, and has long been known to contain some interesting vertebrate fossils, such as stegodons (ancient elephants), and Palaeolithic stone tools. This makes it an ideal location to try and find fossils of the ancestors of “The Hobbit” (spoiler alert if you haven’t been to read the Nature paper yet – they found some! Sadly, the fossils were found after changed jobs, so I missed all the excitement, but I’m still really pleased that I was able to contribute to this exciting work.)

Basecamp for the Soa Basin Project was in a small village called Mengeruda, where the project rented a couple of houses to accommodate the visiting scientists. Mengeruda was only connected to a (relatively) stable electricity supply a couple of years before my first visit, so the accommodation was fairly basic. One of the houses had the luxury of flushing toilets and running cold-water but if you were staying in the second house and needed the facilities in the middle of the night, you had to treck to a small shed across the yard.

Needless to say, there was no air conditioning, other than leaving the shutters open at night. However, this natural air conditioning system meant that we shared the house with a whole host of creatures. One of the first things I was told on arrival was to always check my shoes for scorpions before putting them on. I didn’t find any nasty beasties in my shoes, but I did find a scorpion in my bed on the first day (many thanks to the ladies who managed the house for pulverising that with a broom for me!). A couple of Huntsman spiders were free roaming in the house, which took a bit of getting used to. While my Australian colleagues assured me that they don’t bite, I am a bit of an arachnophobe, and getting to sleep the first few nights wasn’t the easiest. The best night’s sleep I had, however, was the night the giant gecko hung out in my room. I love geckos anyway, but this one was about 30 cm long; apart from being absolutely beautiful, I knew it would probably eat any spiders or scorpions that came in the room :-).

On my second trip, I managed to avoid close encounters with scorpions and spiders in the house, but did have to get help evicting a giant hornet that started trying to become my roommate (many thanks to Gert for his efficient wielding of a Marie Claire Magazine to evict it). Evenings were often spent sitting on the porch, writing up field notes, where the lights attracted everything from moths to a praying mantis. Unsurprisingly, there are no street lights in Mengeruda, so at night, away from the house, the only light was from stars or the moon. This meant some great views of the stars on moonless nights. Somehow, the local people were able to walk around in the dark without using a torch on  nights like this – I still haven’t figured out how!

Days in Mengeruda started early; even if you were able to sleep past the dawn chorus of birds, dogs and farmyard animals that began around 5:30, it was rare that it was cool enough to sleep past about 6:30.

A truck left Mengeruda, driving to the main excavation around 6:30 every morning. The journey on the truck took ~ 25 minutes, or it was a 45 minute walk with 2-3 stream crossings. The truck would start off fairly full with the just the Project team, but the excavation hired many people from Mengeruda and the surrounding villages, and some of them them would jump on the truck as it passed through the village, so it was often overflowing by the time it arrived at the excavation site. At the end of the day, the truck was often full of fossils, to be studied at the basecamp and later transferred to the Indonesian Geological Survey in Bandung, leaving less room for passengers, so most people walked home.

The track between the village and the excavation presented some amazing scenery. There are hot springs at the end of the village that are used by the local people as a bath (a great way to relax when a cold shower just isn’t enough to scrub off the many layers of volcanic ash, sweat and suncream that can build up during a day of sampling); early in the morning, before the air heats up too much, these produce lots of dramatic steam.

After the springs, the track climbs a hill and then offers wonderful views across rice paddies and rainforest filled valleys towards Ambulobo Volcano; this is even more dramatic early in the day, before the sun burns off the morning mists rising up from the valley. Ambulobo is an immensely pretty volcano, of which I took far too many photos – expect to see more of them in future posts 😉

Ambulobo

Spectacular view looking across the valley to Ambulobo volcano, during the morning commute to the excavation.

One of the things that first attracted me to geology, back when I was a teenager, is that is can be so pretty!

While I don’t consider myself a high-level photographer (I definitely need to upgrade my camera if I am going to do that*), ever since I got my first digital camera I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to capture the beauty of the geological world in photographs.

A couple of years ago, I submitted some of my photos to the EGU (European Geosciences Union) photo competition and was really pleased when two of them were selected as finalists.

You can see the photos in the Imaggeo database here here (Colourful Hydrovolcanism) and here (Climate Change Is In Our Hands).

In 2015, Colourful Hydrovolcanism was picked to feature as an Imaggeo on Mondays photoblog. This photoblog is published every monday and showcases some beautiful geoscience photos, with some kind of scientific explanation of the photo subject. So if you want to learn what makes the volcanic deposits at El Golfo so colourful and pretty, check out the blog post here.

Being picked as a photo-finalist and to feature on Imaggeo on Mondays was a great honour for me, and so I was even more pleased when I logged onto Twitter the other day, after the Christmas break, to find that Colourful Hydrovolcanism had also been picked as one of the best Imaggeo photos of 2015 (my personal favourite on this page is the image of the glacier collapsing – wow!). What a great start to the New Year!

Happy New Year everybody!

* Warning: camera rant. In 2006 I picked up a Canon Powershot A650; a pocket sized “point and shoot” but with a rotatable viewscreen and a decent amount of manual control over shutter speed, aperture size and “film speed”. It was a fantastic little camera. A couple of years ago a friend saw me taking photos and commented “the photos you post online – you took them with *THAT*?!!?!”. Last year (2015) my poor little camera really started to struggle. I had abused it over the years, letting it get rained on, carried in the same bag as rock samples, covered in volcanic ash; the lens was substantially scratched and the light sensitivity was definitely not what it used to be. So I decided to buy a new one. Except Canon don’t make this range any more. I eventually managed to track down a second hand version a couple of years younger than mine, in good condition, but this is also now struggling in moderate to low lighting, even on the maximum ISO of 800. I’m really hoping Canon relaunch this model because it is awesome. I don’t want a big bridge camera – I want something that will fit in my pocket or handbag, but that lets me have manual control, and has a moveable viewscreen so that I can shoot interesting angles. If anyone comes across a camera that is similar to the old Powershot A650 series, please let me know!