Sunday, July 29, 2007

field preparations

The last few weeks have been empty of blog updates, I know - and this is really due to the intensity of preparations for an upcoming field campaign - BEARPEX. Which begs a few questions: What is a field campaign? What kind of preparations am I doing that stop me from falling to the fabulous procrastination that is blogging? And who on earth came up with the name BEARPEX, with its associated images of muscular grizzly bears?

So a field campaign is when a bunch of scientists get together somewhere (the so-called 'field', though frequently a forest/city/mountain-top, etc... and yes, I've heard the joke about farmers working in the field...) to measure everything they can think of to answer a series of (at least to them) interesting questions. So the field campaign I'm headed to in a couple of weeks is BEARPEX, which stands for Biosphere Effects on Aerosols and Photochemistry EXperiment. The point of the project is to figure out how molecules that come out of forests affect local air quality and atmospheric chemistry. In particular, we're looking at a ponderosa pine plantation in the middle of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California (where I spent far too many years of my PhD thesis), trying to understand all the compounds that come in and out of the woods.

(brief sciencey interlude) The essence of the project can be thought of as: when you walk through a pine forest, you smell, well, pines - and that heavenly scent has to come from somewhere - namely, various organic compounds that pour out of pine needles. Since these compounds interact with various components of air pollution (which come up from Sacramento) to change air quality, the question is how many organic compounds come out of the forest, how do they interact with ozone, NOx and other pollutants, and do these compounds make aerosols (little particles that are key components of haze, cause breathing problems and are what make places like the Blue Mountains blue. The last question (aerosol fluxes in and out of the forest) is my key interest in this project.

But, back to the really pressing question: the field campaign name! Every atmospheric chemistry campaign has a name - there was the MIRAGE (Megacity Impacts on the Regional And Global Environment) campaign in Mexico City last year (eerily appropriate name due to the non-existence of our equipment for weeks and resulting mirage that there was a field campaign going on...), INTEX (Intercontinental Transport EXperiment looking at air pollution moving from Asia to N.America to Europe), etc... So when the call went out for an acronym for our experiment, I had this fabulous image of bears in the woods and (slightly sarcastically) suggested BEARPEX. Little did I know that the name would become our campaign name. Perhaps no one else suggested names. Either way, I'm hoping for some t-shirts with good images of bears baring their pecs. And needless to say, the jokes are already flying among the post-docs/graduate students: we've already suggested changing the acronym to BEARPEX: Bitter Experimentalists Always Repairing Pieces of Equipment eXperiment due to the dearth of working instruments three weeks before the campaign begins...

And it is that broken instrumentation, along with packing lists, logistics arrangements and insurance forms and legalities that has kept me working hard these last few weeks. But the end is in sight: (I hope) we have the final replacement part for our instrument so it can get fixed tomorrow, orders are in to companies for parts, and we finally have the CU legal affairs looking at all the relevant paperwork. So it'll be a stressful week, as we're planning on shipping on Friday and leaving for the site a week later!

But don't think that there is no fun to be had while preparing for a field campaign. Last night I played a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit with a group of friends. The catch (among all us late 20's/early 30's) was that our version of the game was published in 1997. So in order to answer many of the questions, one had to calibrate back to the pre-iPod/Bush&Chenney/9-11 era - before Tiger Woods became the answer to every golf-related question, Michael Jackson had a large number of unpleasant questions surrounding him and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were built... It really makes one realize how much the world has changed in a decade - it's like looking back at the world atlas I had in grade school and seeing East and West Germany. But, aside from the socio/political realization of a decade of change that alternately amused and intrigued us, we learnt a great many trivial pieces of information: Sahara means 'wilderness' in Arabic, a tablespoon of sugar is the most common cure for chronic hiccuping, and on average 0 of 10 people keep gloves in their car's glove compartment. I objected to the last one because I know my mother keeps gloves in her car. But apparently that's not enough to sway national statistics. My partner, Chris, and I had a great start with several pie pieces (we decided to obnoxiously high five while proclaiming 'Pie-Five' whenever we got a pie question right, much to the annoyance of the other players). However, while we were the first team to the middle, I have to admit that we got the two Canadian hockey-related questions completely wrong, and the game went to the winning duo of Becca and Kelley who combined their PhD's in chemistry and political science with an astounding knowledge of golf and oldies/80's music history to pull through at the end.

But, I must stop procrastinating and get back to my work: bring on the inlet designs and packing lists...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

hail and rain and memories of a tin roof

The hail just started pouring down, and I can hear it hitting the leaves the of the tree outside my bedroom and bouncing off the ground. Large white chunks of ice the size of corn kernels have pelted our balcony, and I am once again amazed by mountain weather. Somehow the presence of slabs of concrete jutting out of the plains causes thunderstorms, which occasionally bring hail with them. I won't even pretend to understand it, though I'm sure there's an elegant piece of physics explaining it. In particular, I'm sure my father explained it to me in extreme detail when I was a child. Sadly I don't recall. But it is particularly odd that it is hot enough outside to wear shorts and a t-shirt, yet there are chunks of ice falling out of the sky.

But the hail has given way to rain, which still collides with the ground to create a loud noise, but seems gentler in comparison. And less painful to the passers-by on the street outside my apartment.

The sound of rain reminds me of the rainstorms we had during the wet season in Costa Rica. Every afternoon you had to prepare yourself for being completely drenched. It was too early in the afternoon to plan on getting back inside, so we learned to appreciate how alive and green the rain made the forest. Of course, I was never there when the La Selva river flooded the field station, so can't really complain. But I do recall one afternoon when I tried to give a lecture during a rainstorm. The classroom was an open buliding (ie no walls) with a tin roof. At first the drizzle was kind of charming. As I tried to use the blackboard to make my point (no overhead projector so my prepared slides were useless), the rain started to get stronger (became kind of amusing) and stronger (I started to shout my lecture) and stronger (I completely gave up). By the time I called an end to the lecture - and couldn't shout loud enough to let everyone in the building know I'd given up - it sounded like the entire percussion section of an orchestra had decided to bang on our ceiling. When you sit under a tin roof in a rainstorm, you really realize how much energy there is in a storm - almost more dramatic than wind damage.

But, in true mountain weather form, the storm has stopped - not quite enough to cool the air down, just enough rain to produce that heady humid smell of a passing storm...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

summer heat

So I managed to escape the 30+ (C) heat of East Coast U.S. and make it out just in time to catch the 30+C Colorado heat wave. The good news is that the humidity is only 23% (much drier), so it doesn't feel quite as oppressive.

I noticed that the Boulder approach to dealing with heat is quite... unique... There are two approaches: you can either tube down the Boulder Creek (or, for the less adventurous, just lie fully clothed in the creek and watch the world walk by on the B.Creek Path). This seems very sensible and refreshing to me. The second approach is slightly crazier. Apparently if you cycle on your bike fast enough, you get a nice refreshing breeze. So if you go for a bike ride for several hours in the heat of the day, you should cool off... Sensible, right?

I made the mistake of attempting cooling method #2 yesterday - mainly out of a need to run errands on opposite sides of town. Finally, late yesterday afternoon, once I had 'cooled down' with a 15 minute bike ride through North Boulder, I got to my soccer game. Now, it's apparently to 'hot' in Colorado to play outdoor soccer (that, and the thunderstorms), so soccer is an indoor sport. This would make sense if there were air conditioning in the indoor arena. Being indoor (6v6) soccer, the ball goes fast, and since it can ricochet off walls, there's no pause in the game for throw-ins. Subbing is done on the fly - just to add a little extra drama. But despite the heat, I had a great time. Our team is excellent and fun, and the whole game was very pleasant (in the sportsman-ship, clean game sort of way, not in the opressively hot way...). Intense, but pleasant. (For the record, we won. As in 10-3, had to play a man down for most of the game. Go team!). And then, I got back on my bike to go home. And realized that perhaps this bike-til-you-feel-the-breeze approach to Boulder heat isn't sooo crazy.