Saturday, June 10, 2017

Attempting to move mountains

I am back in Colorado for another summer of fieldwork at the beautiful Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. This summer, I am excited to start an experiment of my own.

The climate is changing in the Rocky Mountains where I am working. Increasingly warmer temperatures are lowering the amount of winter snowpack and advancing the timing of spring snow melt. The ability to predict how plant communities respond to a changing climate is increasingly a central challenge and focus in biodiversity and ecological science. In order to recreate the conditions of a warmer, drier climate, I will be moving whole sections of plant communities down an elevation gradient (ok, not quite moving mountains...). I will then measure a variety of plant and community characteristics to assess changes to plant community composition and functioning.

One of the most immediate and potentially experiment-ending challenges will be to uproot intact sections of land and transplant them successfully to new locations. I have accepted that this is a risky project and I am trying to anticipate problems in order to minimize the risk. I have been practicing digging up sections of land with different soil types and plant species using a variety of tools and techniques. Though I have found variable success, I am hopeful that with more practice and strategy, this process will go smoothly. Pending that success, I will then have to wait a year to see if the transplanted plants survive and grow next summer.

Scientific publications often highlight stories of success: a ground-breaking experiment, observation, or theory. It is important to keep in mind, however, that prior to publication there was likely a lot of trial and error, learning and revising. Science is problem solving and I have a feeling that this is what my summer will be all about. Regardless of the success of the experiment, I am certain that by the end of the summer, I will have gained a greater understanding of what it is like to do field-based research. And likely some very muscular arms!

Our first attempt ended in a crumbled mess!

Attempt 2: Not bad, but too destructive to the surrounding plants.
Attempt 3: Our best yet. Time to move on to new types of plants!
Attempt 4: Struggling to remove a forb-dominated turf.
Attempt 5: Successfully removing a turf with bare ground. We're getting there!

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