Engaging with Science | May 21, 2020 | By Lauren Timlick, Environmental Technician

Tales of Adaptation and Improvisation at a Canadian Research Station

It’s 2020, and we are truly living in a strange and inverted world.

Over the past few months, many people have needed to adapt their work schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the world’s freshwater laboratory is no exception, with most of us working from home and travelling to the site in very small groups.

This restructuring of our reality has been challenging in many ways: a lack of structured routine, unpredictable circumstances, and a shocking shortage of toilet paper.

But wait a second, I am seeing a parallel here—those are all the things that make fieldwork so strange and wonderful too! Fieldwork has always depended on the importance of improvisation and adaptation to create a successful work environment.

As a brief moment of levity in between reading the news for the 30th time today, please enjoy these tales of IISD-ELA fieldwork where adaptation and improvisation played a key role in convincing people we were 100% prepared from the start completing high-impact freshwater science.

Blowing It All on A Raft

By Bryanna Sherbo (MSc Student, Algal Ecology)

It was a warm day in July 2017 when Bryanna Sherbo and her assistant Justin Budyk rode the hour-long winding ATV trail out to Lake 164. Part of Bryanna’s work on the Photons to Fish project (to provide us with insights into what drives fish productivity in freshwater systems) involved her collecting water samples and oxygen readings from lakes with different water clarity, no matter how far away.

In order to get sampling, they needed to first inflate their 5×8 ft Zodiac Raft (see the image below) to cross a marsh. One pump … two pumps … and the bicycle pump they were using snapped clean in half.

“Oops,” said Justin.

“Wow,” said Bryanna.

Left with no other options, the pair proceeded to blow up the boat with their own air, making for a light-headed but blessedly complete sampling excursion.

Man sits on inflatable raft with oar in the middle of a bright blue freshwater lake bordered by green trees
Justin, so excited that he can’t breathe, on the water in the inflated Zodiac.
Or maybe that’s just from blowing the boat up by mouth.

Seleniummmmm, Yes, I Think That Will Work

By Sonya Michaleski (MSc Student, Toxicology)

Sometimes your supervisor might assign you a task to test your ingenuity. This was certainly the case when our very own Senior Research Scientist Vince Palace asked Sonya to make a device that measures how much selenium transfers from the surface of the water into the air. This was a last-minute side project addition to the University of Saskatchewan’s enclosure study to discover how selenium affects the whole ecosystem.

Having a general idea of what this device might look like Sonya scavenged the IISD-ELA field station for the parts. She found:

  1. Pieces of old floating docks
  2. A cooling unit liberated from Vince’s basement
  3. SCUBA weight belts
  4. Tupperware boxes
  5. Hand-me-down batteries and solar panels from the early 2000s
  6. Various other components that had lived in the warehouse for an indeterminant period of time.

After weeks of beta-testing the device (dubbed the SelenoSucker™) in a kiddie pool, it was deployed in the enclosures and worked! What began life as a pile of literal garbage produced good and useful results on the fate of selenium in fresh water.

The SelenoSucker™ in its natural habitat. Sandbag and large rock for ballast and scale.
The SelenoSucker™ in its natural habitat. Sandbag and large rock for ballast and scale.

Wetting Our Whistle

By Me, Lauren Timlick (Environmental Technician, Toxicology)

The year was 2017.

The aforementioned Sonya and I were retrieving sediment samples from several locations on the then-prospective lake in which we would soon be researching the impact of oil spills on fresh water.

To get this done, we brought an Ekman sampler which works by being dropped down to the lake bottom with the two side scoops held open by wires. A lead weight is then sent down the rope to hit the release and snap the sides shut, grabbing surface sediment in the process. We knew that we needed to sample a rocky area, a marshy area, and a beautiful sandy bay. We decided to save the sandy bay for last as it would likely be the easiest. SPOILER ALERT: it was not.

After a suspiciously successful first two sampling sites, we reached the sandy bay. On the first station, one of the wires holding the two sides apart snapped! So close to completing our task, we refused to give up and searched the boat for anything we could use to repair the sampler.

In our first aid kit, there was a red whistle on a lanyard. We used pliers, tape, and the knot-tying skills of an entire Girl Scout troupe to attach the lanyard as a makeshift wire. It worked perfectly as we collected the next two samples.

(Then the lanyard snapped on the third station, and we had to come back the next day to finish the job anyway, but we don’t talk about that part.)

Woman with blonde hair blows on orange whistle in a small boat on a freshwater lake
Here I am with the (temporarily) repaired Ekman. As an added bonus, I got to play some cheeky little whistle solos on the drive back to camp.

Avoiding a Mercurial Disaster

By Ken Sandilands (Biologist – Field Coordinator)

The Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the United States (METAALICUS) project holds the title for most hardcore acronym in our history. It turns out this project team from the early 2000s was also hardcore in their approach to necessary adaptation.

To simulate how mercury is deposited through rainfall, we used stable (nonradioactive) mercury isotopes. These allow scientists to tell the difference between mercury applied to the shoreline, applied to the lake, or that already existed naturally in the environment. Since the majority of mercury associated with pollution is deposited during rainfall, the project hired a crop duster to apply these incredibly expensive and difficult to obtain isotopes to the experimental site.

Here is where a couple of challenges cropped up. Pun intended.

The weather for application had to meet two very specific criteria for the whole thing to work. It must have recently rained so the isotopes won’t just evaporate from the shoreline, but it must not actually be raining so that the crop duster pilot can see where he is flying.

Crop duster flying over freshwater lake spraying into it
The METAALICUS taught us a great deal about the impact of mercury on fresh water.

Now, this is difficult enough in itself since, if we’ve learned anything about working in northwestern Ontario, it’s near impossible to predict the weather over one exact spot. To compound this situation, however, it turns out that the plane could not land with a full tank. This means if the pilot took off and the weather was not exactly what they needed it to be, the tank full of water and incredibly expensive and difficult to obtain mercury isotopes would have to be dumped anyway. Ouch.

The scientists and technicians put their heads together and came up with a solution to their potentially pricey problem. They installed a separatory funnel above the water in the tank of the crop duster with a tube leading from the funnel into the cockpit where it ended in a handpump. This allowed for the pilot to release only the water if the weather wasn’t cooperating or squeeze the hand pump and release the mercury and water when everything was perfect. Through this bit of adaptive ingenuity, the project was able to successfully apply (just one whole teaspoon’s worth) of mercury isotopes between 2001 and 2006, and teach us what we now know about the impact of mercury on fresh water.

Black and white blueprint for a contraption to crop dust mercury over a lake.
The METAALICUS project’s incredible money-saving crop duster adaptation!