Three Weeks Work In A Box

Day 15: An early morning as we undertook the three hour drive from Anchorage to Kenai. After a quick check in at the hotel we travelled straight to the site to explore, and tag our plants. We have two sites in Captain Cook recreational area as different plants were found in certain areas. The vegetation here is very different to what we saw in Anchorage. The edges of the trails have recently been cut back, resulting in very weedy growth along the trail edges and grass has taken over in many places. The plants are also starting to look less healthy as it is nearing the end of Summer and it is harder to find healthy leaves to measure here. Here’s a picture of one of our sites which is another popular fishing area:

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Day 16: Today was the first really sunny day we had, and it was a joy to work in! It was also the most enjoyable day so far! Firstly we met a girl who was very interested in our work, so I have to give a big shout out to Wikima (epic name) who’s reading this and hopefully learning lots! 🙂 She also saved us a lot of time today by spreading the word about what we were doing to other interested people.

Towards the end of our sampling a man pulled over in his car to warn us of a nearby bear, when he realise we were working with plants he pointed out that this was a mast year for spruce trees here. That is, a year in which trees produce many more cones or fruit than usual. This usually occurs every ten years. He told us that he had been living here for 6 years, and this is the first mast year he had seen, so we were very lucky to see it! Here’s a couple of pictures of the Spruce;

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To top off the day we met two men who had been fishing off a bridge near our site who invited us to try their home smoked salmon. They let us taste silver salmon directly from their smoke house, and then their pressure cooked smoked sock-eye salmon too, as well as providing us with a bottle of ale! It’s safe to say we got a true taste of Alaska! It was an amazing day thanks to their kindness and their stories of living in Alaska.

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Group Photo!                                                                          Silver Salmon smoking

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Cooked Sock-Eye Salmon

 

Day 17: Another lovely hot day today and a very productive day too! We tagged more plants today as we did not have as many species here as on previous sites which resulted in us having more individuals here than any of our other sites so we have a busy few days ahead! The guys measured at our other site today and when we collected them at the end of the day we drove around the corner from where they had been measuring to see a large black bear rummaging about which ran into the bush when it saw our car, proving that there are bears very nearby.

We also visited the cultural heritage centre in Kenai which is a free centre highlighting the history of the area as well as the history of Alaska, and also displayed local art. Afterward We drove to a nearby view point to look across the bay at the volcanoes and mountains as it was such a clear day.

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The view across the bay, it may look like clouds but they’re actually volcanoes!

 

Day 18: We had another run in with a black bear today… but this one was much more humorous than the first encounter. Wuu-Kuang was with myself and Michelle today taking notes. We all stopped dead on the trail when we heard a twig break in the woods nearby, we stood an listened for a few seconds but heard nothing. As soon as we began to talk again a large black bear clambered up a nearby tree, clearly startled. After the initial shock we were in awe at this creature half way up peering around the trunk at us. It was beautiful to see, but we moved on quickly once it started to make its way back down the tree. We also heard our first wolf howl this morning, all great experiences this morning! 🙂

Wuu-Kuang also began to press the leaves today on the site while we continued on with the measurements, talk about organisation!

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Day 19:  Today was our very last day of work on the trip, and it seemed to fly by. Of course today was the day we collected the leaves at the site too. Pressing took us much longer than usual due to the sheer amount of individuals we measured at these sites, so it was a big last push! The leaves now have until Saturday to dry out and then all the leaves can be posted back to Ireland. We were all exhausted but satisfied that the work was such a success. We now have three days before our flight and so have a couple of things planned to do for ourselves, starting with a small cruise tomorrow in Seward.

 

Day 20: Wuu-Kuang, Harry and myself set out on  six hour cruise this morning from Seward to visit a glacier, go whale watching, and discover the Alaskan coast. Michelle went on a shorter cruise as well. We saw orcas, puffins, humpback whales, seals. sea lions, otters and lots of other birds. The glacier was fantastic and we had such great weather! Here’s a few pictures of the creatures we saw;

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Birds                                                                                              Humpback Whale

 

 

 

 

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Sea lions                                                                                     Orcas

 

 

 

 

 

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Lions Mane Jellyfish

 

Day 21: Today was a real lazy day. Myself and Michelle went to a local cafe for lunch and sat outside in the sun for a couple of hours. As it was our last night we decided to visit a real local bar for a drink. It felt like something out of a movie! A really dark, smoking bar with a couple of locals playing pull tabs (similar to scratchcards). We met a biker named Roy who turned out to be extremely knowledgeable about Alaska’s plants and animals, and also owned a gold mine! He told us that there had been next to no blueberry plants around for the last 5 years, (which explained why we found them so hard to find!) and believes that it’s because of the increase in rain that they had been having in recent years. After he left a band kicked up so we stayed for a little while and got birthday cake as someone was having a party in the bar. A great night to finish out on. 🙂

 

Day 22: This is what our three weeks worth of work looks like:

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All boxed this morning and shipped for home.

Our flight is not until midnight so today we headed to Anchorage to spend our last hours in the city. I decided to take a quick trip to the Alaska zoo to see the animals we missed on our trip, most noticeably a brown bear and caribou! Seeing the brown bears made me very glad we didn’t come across one out on our trails, they were huge!! Despite it being a rather small zoo they had all of the native mammals and birds and put a lot of effort into education and rehabilitation of the animals brought in to them.  A final wander around the city, a goodbye to the last frontier and we were off to the airport for our long trip home.

 

We’re all home safe and sound now, with only a half hour delay on our last flight, so a successful trip in all. I’m now recovering from jet lag! I cannot thank Wuu-Kuang, Michelle, Harry and Prof. Jennifer McElwain for giving me this opportunity. Not only to just be a part of a project like this, but to travel to such an amazing place to do so! Wuu-Kuang, Michelle and Harry were great teachers, delightful work and travel companions and had a lot of patience with me! Apart from learning so much about the plants themselves, and becoming much more familiar with the species we were working with (including being able to identify them, which I could not do on the first week). I also got real experience working on a big project in the field, what working it’s really like and also an insight into everything involved in a project like this; the planning, the knowledge, the complications, etc. I feel like I have learned so many skills which will now help me carry out my fourth year project this coming year, and it will also help me to decide what direction I will take once I have finished college and begin my career. This has only been the tip of the iceberg. 😉 Thank you everybody!

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Meet the Team!

In this post I’m going to introduce you to the team and go into a little more detail about the research being carried out.

 

Myself: For those of you who have not read the ‘About’ page, my name is Kiri Fisher. I’m a fourth year student from University College Dublin, studying Zoology & Botany. I travelled here with the group as a field assistant to help with the work, experience how research is conducted in the field, and of course learn lots! But enough about me, lets get on to the important people!

Wuu-Kuang is a post-doctoral researcher & Michelle is a PhD student. They are both funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) to investigate whether future changes in plant physiology, driven by rising levels of carbon dioxide, will enhance global runoff and flooding risk.

Harry: A post-doctoral researcher, undertaking a European Research Council (ERC) funded project. He is researching how simulated changes in Earth’s atmospheric composition at different intervals in Earth history influence stomatal behaviour and photosynthetic physiology in different plant groups  He has joined Michelle & Wuu-Kuang this year in both Puerto Rico and Alaska to carry out his research as well as contribute some of his data to their project.

 

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From left to right: Harry, Myself, Michelle & Wuu-Kuang.

 

What we do:

We are measuring stomatal conducance of leaves (the rate of passage of carbon dioxide (CO2) into, or water vapor out of the leaf through their stomata), in a range of selected woody species. We are working on the same species from a collection of leaves made thirty years ago. The first day at the site is spent walking trails to find our species of interest and to tag the best leaf from each individual. Measurements are taken daily over the next four days at each site, these measurements capture the instantaneous transport across leaves, as well as properties of the surrounding air. Meanwhile, Harry is also measuring the transport, but over a longer period of time, and under specific, controlled temperature, CO2, humidity & light intensity using a infared gas analyser called CIRAS. CIRAS  measures conductance and photosynthesis, thus enabling the calculation of plants’ water use efficiency

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CIRAS

 

Notes are taken on the individuals themselves as well as the habitat they are found in. On the last day the measured leaves are collected to be brought back for physiological analysis in the lab. Extra leaves from the individual are also collected to be pressed and sent to herbariums in UCD, the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin, and the Smithsonian, Washington. The plants are placed into individually labelled sheets of newspaper, and placed on top of one another, with cardboard placed in between every few sheets. These are then placed into a plant press and left to dry for a few days.

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Wuu-Kuang pressing plants in the field.                                 The finished product.

 

 

This research has been carried out by Michelle and Wuu-Kuang in many climate zones;

Temperate Deciduous (Maryland & Pennsylvania)

Mediterranean/Chaparral (California)

Sub-Tropical Desert (Arizona)

Temperate Rainforest (Oregon)

Tropical Seasonal Forest (Puerto Rico)

Boreal Forest/Taiga (Alaska)

To come:

Rainforest (Fiji)

 

All of the collected data and physiological characteristics of the leaves will be compared to results gathered 30 years ago which will ultimately tell us how plants have changed over the past 30 years as a result of increasing Co2, if the way in which they are changing will increase flood risk, and to what extent by the year 2050.

Bird Creek

Day 10: Last night came with very little sleep after doing some reading on our new site at Bird Creek. It’s a very popular fishing area, as well as a favourite spot for brown bears this time of year as there are many salmon in the area. There was a bear attack just last month in the area, so our first stop this morning was to a shop to invest in some bear pepper spray which is the recommended form of defence.

Our anxiety quickly faded as we drove along the beautiful scenic coastal route to or site. Here are a few pictures of the stunning site and the scenery on the way there;

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Alaskan railroad                                                                                 Potter’s Marsh

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A Shadowy Cook Inlet                                                         Bird Creek

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Bird Ridge Trail

We spent the day walking the trails, finding and tagging the species we are going to measure this week. This evening Michelle decided to clean the sensor plate in the porometer to ensure readings remained as accurate as possible.

 

Day 11: Today was a dull, wet day and the equipment took longer than usual to calibrate, and longer to take measurements too.

The site has many mushrooms. We met a German man who had been collecting some for his dinner. Here’s a picture of the most interesting one we saw;

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Amanita muscaria (fly agaric mushroom)

 

 

Day 12:  Wuu-kuang took notes on all of the plants today while we took measurements. A very noticeable thing about this site is the infestation of leaf miners on all of the birch trees. Below are a couple of pictures of one of the leaves.

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Another thing we found today was fresh tracks through one part of our trail which had been left by bears. Parts of the vegetation had been trampled, including one of our unfortunate plants. It looked as though they had been lying down in some parts.

As well as carrying out our work we also have to be vigilant at all times and look out for bears. Especially in quiet areas where not many people walk. There’s a constant feeling of anxiety in these areas which makes it hard to appreciate all the small beautiful things around you. But here’s a pretty dragonfly I snapped along the way. 🙂

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Day 13: We had a very wet day today, and measuring took a lot longer. Many of the leaves had to be blotted dry before taking measurements to ensure that moisture wasn’t affecting readings by increasing conductance. To ensure our equipment didn’t get wet the porometer was placed in a ziplock bag. The ceptometer was dried after each measurement with kitchen towel.

Today also showed the first signs of the changing season. We spotted a couple of Ribes leaves changing to yellow. 🙂

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Day 14. The ceptometer was aired overnight to ensure no moisture got inside yesterday. Today was our last day of measurements at Bird Creek, and also our last day in Anchorage! We collect leaves from our plants and pressed them back at the hotel (I will go into more detail about the pressing process in a later post!). I’m ready to move down to Kenai in the morning and see even more of the last frontier. 🙂

The 49th State

Day 8:  Today Michelle and myself were in an adventurous mood and so decided to rent bikes and take in some scenery by cycling the Tony Knowles coastal route from downtown Anchorage. It’s a 10.2 mile trail along the coast of anchorage past the Cook inlet and finishing at Kincaid. It was such a beautiful trail and we saw plenty of scenery and wildlife;

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Right at the end of the take-off runway                            A lovely creek

at Anchorage airport

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A beautiful park lake with Chugach                                   The ‘Sleeping Lady’

mountain  backdrop

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A hawkmoth caterpillar                                                      A curious squirrel

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Ski skating                                                                           Anchorage across the Cook inlet

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A beautiful bull moose

 

We’ll have sore legs in the morning!

 

Day 9: Today was our last day off in Anchorage so it was a matter of cramming as much in as possible. We all split up to do our own things, which for me was to learn a bit more about the ‘Iditarod Trail’ sled dog race, and to have one last wander around the weekend market.

The ‘Iditarod Trail’ is a yearly race which takes place on the first Saturday of March, covering a distance of 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome. It’s ran by a teams of 16 dogs and their mushers. The race commemorates the trail undertook in 1925 by a team delivering antitoxin from Anchorage to cure an epidemic of diphtheria in Nome. The ceremonial start line is in downtown Anchorage, which is marked by a checkpoint sign which I visited today. Unfortunately the information and history centre where they train the dogs is 50 miles out of town so I won’t have a chance to visit. I’ll have to research the rest online!

 

I bought my first ever art piece today, a beautiful raku ceramic sculpture from a local potter. The piece is a grizzly bear holding a fish in its mouth. The woman bubble wrapped it so well to protect it on the flight that I can’t grab a picture, but below is an example of Raku pottery.

RAKU-leaf

This technique is carried out by removing the piece from the kiln while glowing hot and throwing it into sawdust which bursts into flames and creates copper and smoky patterns on the pottery. This ensures each piece is unique. I fell in love with it straight away and I’m delighted to have it as my first art purchase.

Bears, Bees & Botanists

Day 3: So this is going to be my home for the next week;

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Eklutna (ee-KLOOT-nuh) lake in Chugach (CHOO-gach) National Park is our first site. Today we walked the trails to identify the species we are interested in. We chose three individuals from each species and tagged the best (healthiest and biggest) leaf from each, this will be the leaf measured each day. This involved walking many trails, and many miles! It was amazing to see how quickly ecosystems changed while walking; from willow and birch dominated areas to areas covered by low lying plants such as Ribes, Rubus or Linnaea. This is the reason we had to walk great distances to find certain species. It’s going to take me a bit of time to familiarise myself with all of the plants, there’s so many! But I’m sure by the third week I’ll know them inside out. 🙂 Tomorrow we begin taking measurements and I’ll learn exactly what we’ll be doing for the next three weeks.

We left for home and came across our first moose! A female with her baby munching away at the side of the road;

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We were exhausted when we got back  to the hotel so picked up food on the way, ate in the room and had an extremely early night, anticipating a long day ahead tomorrow.

Day 4: Today I was shown how to calibrate all of our equipment to prepare it for the days measuring. The porometer which measures the gaseous exchange through the leaf stomata, the ceptometer which measures the intensity of the light reaching the leaf, and the hygrometer which measures the temperature and relative humidity of the air surrounding the leaf. Our first hiccup came when we realised that the ceptometer batteries were too low to take measurements, forcing Wuu-Kuang to go searching for a shop to buy some more. The second was when after around 4-5 measurements with the porometer it demanded to be recalibrated again, and so we had to trek back to the car park to repeat the process. Talk about the trials of the first day! After that we began to get into the swing of things. First Michelle would take measurements from the leaf with the porometer while I used a GPS to mark the plants position. Then Michelle would use the hygrometer to measure the air temperature and relative humidity, which I noted down, and I took the light intensity reading using the ceptometer. This was repeated for every tagged leaf.

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Michelle with the hygrometer                                              Myself measuring light intensity with the ceptometer

 

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Measuring the conductance with the porometer

 

Of course there were many curious bypassers who stopped to ask us what we were doing, I have a feeling this is going to be a continuous trend for the next few weeks. We also stumbled upon this beautiful lichen/Moss garden on one of the trails:

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Day 5: We got off to a frightening start this morning when myself and Michelle decided to check out a new trail to see if we could find any new plant species, as there was not much sun out yet. After a couple of minutes of finding nothing different we decided to head back to begin our work. We turned around and turned the corner we had just came around to find a large black bear less than 10 meters ahead blocking our path. We were petrified and backed up out of sight to decide what to do. We remembered reading about what to do in these situations and began shouting and banging on our clipboards to make as much noise as possible as they are supposed to get scared and run away. This one however did not seem fazed at all and just stared at us. Eventually it retreated into the bush a little bit but still clearly in sight, enough for us to edge around it back to our trail home, but as soon as we passed it began to follow us. Clipboards broke in half, sheets flew everywhere as we tried to make as much noise as possible to scare it off, but when it stopped to smell the fallen sheets we were able to put some distance between us so that the bear lost interest and retreated. Not a nice first encounter! We waited around for around an hour until people began to show up and use the trails before we started to measure. I had ‘bearanoia’ for the rest of the day, jumping at every sound. We’ll certainly start work later in the day from now on!

But aside from that we had a great day measuring, even without our sheets! We found that Ribes hudsonianum was recording very high conductivity in the afternoon compared to the other species. We also measured a Salix alaxensis individual recording 634 mMol/m²/sec conductance, a new record in the project so far.

Oh, but I also got stung by a bee! Not my day.

Day 6: Being the intrepid botanists we are the events from yesterday didn’t deter us as we turned up a mere hour later than usual to begin our work, only to have another eventful morning. Harry went to the lake to set up for his measuring while we stayed to calibrate the equipment, he returned 5 minutes later saying there was a bear at his site. We all went down and sure enough there was a young black bear snooping around. We shouted and chased him it off but it just kept coming back time after time. Just curious to see what we were doing/ wanting to get down to the lake.

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In the end the lads were forced to move their work to a different area to leave the poor thing alone, and so they didn’t have to continuously watch their backs. We could then carry on as usual and take our measurements.

We also smashed yesterday’s record with another S. alaxensis measuring 663 mMol/m²/sec!

 

Day 7: Today was our last day at the beautiful Eklutna lake. 😦 And a very busy day it was!

Measuring was carried out as usual. Today Wuu-Kuang and Harry accompanied us to write notes on each individual as well as to collect samples from each. We then returned to the hotel to begin pressing the plant samples to send to herbarium collections at UCD, Glasnevin Botanic Gardens and the Smithsonian herbarium, Washington. This will be done at the end of each week so that there are samples from all three sites.

We now have the weekend off to do some paperwork and rest up before moving to the next site on Monday.

 

To finish off here’s some nice pictures of our trails and interesting things I’ve seen along the way;

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Into The Wild

Day 1: We arrived safe and sound after a solid 28 hours of travel.  We were full of excitement from the off, delighted to finally be on our way. We were slightly disheartened however when we realised after landing in Newark that we had another 7½ hour flight ahead, not a 4-5 hour flight like we originally imagined (I seriously underestimated the size of America). Our excitement really started to build however when we began to see this while flying over Prince William Sound;

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Once we had acquired a car and squeezed all of our bags and equipment inside we headed to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

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Day 2: Work begins tomorrow, so we decided to take a trip into town today to explore and recover from all of the travelling. This is my first time in America (plus I’m a very excitable person) so naturally everything here fascinates me. From my first Dunkin’ doughnut, to my first Walmart trip, the big cars, the endless varieties of Ben and Jerry’s, the amazing accents, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come!

But all the typically American things aside this state is just amazing. There’s just a calm here that I’ve never seen anywhere before. Nobody’s in a rush, cars drive by at a leisurely pace, even walking around downtown is so peaceful. Michelle said straight away on our flight from Newark to Anchorage that the atmosphere was completely different, there was a buzzing animated tone, and that the people on board were ‘a bunch of characters’. They certainly are! Absolutely everyone you meet is so polite and meet you with a hello, excuse me or even small talk on the street. It’s just a country full of big jeeps and big personalities.

We visited the Anchorage Museum first. Jammed full of history, art exhibitions, interactive science learning, a small live marine animal section and a very interesting temporary exhibition about plastic waste found at sea.

Afterwards we took a walk around downtown Anchorage and the first thing we noticed were the well thought out flower displays. Beautiful combinations of plants placed everywhere you look, many of which are commonly used back home. Here’s a few pictures of the plants in the town square;

 

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Another thing that was very apparent was their use of animal materials; fur shops on every corner, items made from musk-ox wool, salmon skin, walrus whiskers and ivory, even whale baleen. So interesting and resourceful!

We stumbled upon a weekend market which sold local foods and crafts such as reindeer sausage (delicious!) and birch syrup. It gave us a nice insight into the culture, and let us soak up some atmosphere before returning to the hotel for an early night, as tomorrow will be a long day.

Tomorrow we visit our first site at Eklutna Lake.  I’m very excited to get started and see where we’ll be working for the next week. From here on I’ll be talking a lot more about plants and our research, so hold tight!