Sunday, 2 February 2020

The noble art of juggling

Either due to a lack of hand eye co-ordination or dedication to practice I've never been able to juggle bean bags, clubs, flaming fire brands, bowling balls or any other object you could care to imagine. However, as an academic juggling is a crucial skill.

This may look like a bunch of typical academics demonstrating their finely honed skills but is actually a picture of the fire juggling group FullCircle

After the successful sampling trip of early January I am now (typing this I noticed the Freudian slip of writing "not" rather than "now"!) the proud owner of 200+ soil samples that need processing. January's beetle bank samples are now pretty much dry - they now need to be weighed, sieved and weighed again. This will allow me to calculate the soil density. They then need to be treated with acid to remove the carbonate and then I can measure their inorganic carbon content. I reckon I can get the weighing an sieving done in a day. The acid treatment will take longer. So the aim here is to get them ready for acidification by the end of Feb.

The Faustian deal of field work - you can enjoy yourself collecting samples but then you have to process them. Of course you should never try and dry soil in plastic bags as you get condensation which slows the process down but if you are time limited and can just leave the samples for weeks, this works fine and saves the time of transferring the soil to drying trays. Depending on the measurements you want to make, slow drying is fine.
Also lurking in the wings are 80 samples that need processing from a carbon sequestration project, 72 samples from a project looking at earthworm - plant communication, teaching, supporting project students and many other competing demands for my attention.....

Andrea Harper in our Biology dept. kindly spent some of her time showing me how to use RNA extraction kits so I'm all primed for the next step of the earthworm - plant communication work. Probably 8 days of work there, the trickiest thing will be grinding up my plant samples which are currently stored at -80C without them defrosting, the rest is down to good pipetting.

I managed to measure the pH of the carbon sequestration samples last week and this week phosphorus measurements are pencilled in. I've also had a good conversation with Harvey Wood at the Clean Rivers Trust about the work and am meeting him in a few weeks time to talk further.

Last week was also occupied by an earthworm workshop in Dusseldorf. This was a great opportunity to talk earthworms and revisit ideas and considerations from Alice Johnston's Syngenta funded PhD of a few years ago now that Richard Sibly and myself were involved in, along with Tania Alvarez and Pernille Thorbek (now at BASF). The workshop was all about producing a computer model, acceptable by regulators and industry, that could predict how earthworms respond to applications of agrochemicals in the field. This could save industry a lot of time and money and have all sorts of spin offs in terms of understanding and predicting earthworm ecology.

The conference was set in an area of old docklands which is being developed in a way that seems far more sympathetic than London's Docklands area. There are old buildings preserved and even incorporated into the new builds.

The Innside hotel at Dusseldorf, set in the old docklands area.
I was in a working group on earthworm movement. It was great to catch up with Alice and Kevin Butt again and good to meet Yvan Capowiez and Martin Holmstrup for the first time, Martin in particular as we are co-authors on one of Alice's earthworm model papers!
Discussing earthworm movement controls with (clockwise from left) Alice Johnston, Yvan Capowiez, Vanessa Roeben, Martin Holmstrup and Kevin Butt. 

Not just earthworms - visiting a local brewery one evening to help with discussions!

The meeting was funded by a European Food Safety organisation and showed how Europe has really helped with science and science-informed policy. Of course, it has been a mad three years in the UK and Friday, the day after getting back from Dusseldorf, was, according to many the day that Brexit happened. It's not over by a long shot with lots of negotiations to come but it did make me wonder on the way home whether that was my last hassle free trip to Europe in the near future. Hopefully not.

EU passport control at Dusseldorf airport - no queues, no hassle. Fingers crossed this continues to be the case.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Day 5 - all done

With three banks and fields to sample today and a lengthy drive home I got up at 6 a.m. to make sure I was at Sennowe Park prompt at 7 a.m. This entailed a cold breakfast of toast which didn't put me in the best of moods. I got to Sennowe Park for about 7.15 am but then was unable to get started until after 8. Whilst I waited it started to rain. So not a great start but the clouds had a silver lining because by the time I was able to start the rain had stopped and it turned into a sunny day. Two of the three banks turned out to be the same age so I only sampled one of those which also meant an early finish enabling me to get home at a reasonable hour though in truth three banks of different ages would have been good.
A rather diffuse bank, c. 20 years old
The final bank of the tour, c. 26 years old
The first bank was rather diffuse and it was tricky to work out where the bank began and ended - it sort of merged into the uncultivated strip next to it. The second was a bit better though had lots of brambles on it which was a nuisance.

The soil was far sandier than the previous days but still had a little flint in it. It was also deeper and ended in a clay rich layer rather than the previous three days chalk - nice for a change.
Flinty not chalky surface

A good auger's worth of soil without hitting parent material
Orange tinted, clayey stuff from the bottom of a core
And that was it - a drive back to York with more Radio 4. In total over 700 miles of driving and a grand total of 216 samples which now I just have to process....

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Day 4 - breakfast mysteries and banks in the sun

A lovely days sampling today in the sunshine despite the predicted rain but the day started with a mystery.....

Gregg's porridge with a serving suggestion of dry oat flakes!
Fond as I am of Greggs, how can a picture of some dry porridge oats be a sensible "serving suggestion" for porridge?

I tried not to let this perplexing question delay my sampling too much and was soon back in the field. only two banks today, the second in particular was a delight with buzzards overhead in the clear blue sky.

2005 bank - lovely blue sky
2015 bank - sky looks a bit ominous but soon it was sunny

The soil was still shallow and chalky, I have high hopes of the Norfolk sampling tomorrow at Sennowe Park for some less stony, deeper soils.
A final shot of chalk bespeckled soil
It was a four to five hour drive from Cranbourne up to Norfolk through some very unpleasant rain (the thick stuff you have to strain to see through, I was very pleased to be in the car and not sampling) but the M25 was moving quite well and I got to my hotel (a Best Western this time, the room is boiling due to some hot water pipes!) at around 6 pm.  It's another early start tomorrow so I can be at the estate office for about 7 am then just 3 banks and fields to sample before heading home!

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Day 3 - the banks keep coming

Another busy day sampling - three more banks done, this time dating from 2017, 2013 and 2011.

The 2017 bank

The 2013 beetle bank

The 2011 bank
Again the soils were shallow with chalk parent material at depths somewhere between 20 and 30 cm.

Chalk at the bottom of the auger from the 2017 bank
2013 samples with depth (and chalk) increasing left to right

The last bank was about 2 km from where I parked so this was an excellent opportunity to work out how to carry the auger, the corer, the GPS system and my bucket over distance - I'll need to do that again tomorrow for a 2005 bank, again at Cranboune. Despite the walk I was finished by 1700 and back to the Ringwood Travel lodge where I chanced my arm and got some additional complementary tea bags (that's four I've had now over 3 days!) and my shower gel dispenser topped up. The pub over the road (The St Leonard) is OK for food and has decent beer and you can get breakfast at Greggs next door to the Travel lodge (porridge for me!) but it has to be said that I won't be rushing back to the Travel lodge (though to be fair the bed is comfy and the shower is hot).

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Day 2 of the Beetle Bank blitz

Another early start this morning but given the level of amenities at Ringwood Travel Lodge I am at least getting early nights!
Field kit present and correct for another morning
First stop was Woodyates farm - two banks here, one about 22 years old, the second created last year.

Bank 1 - a venerable c. 22 years old

Bank 2 - produced last year following the line of some power cables
Both these banks are quite different from yesterdays (and look at the Pentridge one, last stop today as well) which highlights I guess what a simple concept Beetle banks are - they really are just a bank of soil that is left uncultivated. They are produced by farmers turning the ploughed top soil onto the line where they want the bank. This makes them easy to produce but might complicate comparing how the carbon builds up over time between banks.

Another contrast with yesterday was that these soils are quite chalky - you can see the creamy coloured bits of stone in the photos above (and below).
You can see the white chalk at the bottom of the "soil sample" on the left and the brown colour of the overlying soil on the right
Normally soils form through a combination of silicate minerals in rock breaking down and organic matter accumulating. Chalk bedrock is largely calcium carbonate, it doesn't have many silicate minerals to break down; typically the chalk just dissolves leaving very few soil minerals behind, so chalk soils are often very thin. The good news is that this means you don't have to sample very deep to get to the parent mineral material, the bad news is that you can spend a lot of time trying to core through rock!

So the shallower samples vs trying to core through rock kind of cancelled each other out and I didn't make really quick time. I did however, have time for a final field at Pentridge farm - again this was a "new beetle bank" and was on my list for tomorrow so I got one ahead.

The bank was a bit of a monster - the photo doesn't really do it justice, far higher than the others I've seen so far, with wide strips on either side that weren't cultivated.
The Pentridge beetle bank
Again, you can see the chalk quite clearly and the soils in the fields were rather shallow. I managed to finish just before the light gave out on me (the last time I did torch lit field work was with Stuart Black and Tracy Buckby in the Rio Tinto about 20 years ago I can't recommend it).

You can tell that it's getting dark (despite the camera's best efforts) as the lights on the GPS base station and clearly visible.
The drizzle started again and I packed up in the dark. Tomorrow's weather looks OK and it is off to Cranbourne for two days of banks.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Beetle banks tour 2020

So, after a brief hiatus of a mere 4 ish years my term as Head of Department has finished and I'm safe to blog again (I'd stopped previously for fear of saying something I'd regret later!).

2020 begins with a tour of Beetle banks - these are strips of grassed soil in arable fields designed to encourage beetles, the clue is in the name! The beetles help control pests in the arable fields. However as the banks are not ploughed they should accumulate carbon as well. So, working with Dr Alistair Leake of the Allerton project we've identified Beetle banks of various ages and are now sampling them. This should allow us to determine the rate of carbon accumulation in the banks and demonstrate another valuable service they provide.

The first beetle bank - a relatively new one planted c. 10 years ago.
After an early start (0500) I got to the Allerton project just as it was getting light and spent a happy half day sampling a couple of banks with Alistair. Then it was back in the car and a drive down south to Ringwood where I'll be sampling banks at a couple of farms over the next several days then, on Thursday evening, it is back up to Norfolk for a final set of banks on Friday then home to York.

Bank 2 - this one is about 25 years old and is far better established

Alistair in action - he was a bit of a pro when it came to the sampling, far faster than me!

Monday, 5 September 2016

Red Soil Station, Yingtang

Late August saw me travelling to Nanjing, China again, for a meeting of our now-funded joint UK-China project looking at the sustainable management of red soil in China. This is an important project as red soil occupies a large percentage of the area of China, feeds a disproportionate percentage of the population but is prone to erosion and is not very fertile. There are also red soils elsewhere in the world with similar issues. We had a one day project catch up at the Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences before heading off to Yingtang to look at the Sungjia experimental catchment. Not only did we get a chance to catch up on progress but I got to meet several of the other UK partners (based in Aberdeen) for the first time!

Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing
Getting from Nanjing to Sungjia was, in theory straightforward - a three hour trip by high speed train to Yingtang, where the Red Soil Station is also located. However, our taxi driver was rather slow and we missed the train by about 30 seconds. We got the next train but there were only first class tickets left.....

The high speed train

Paul Hallett (Aberdeen) in his luxurious first class seat

Lucile Verrot (Aberdeen) with plenty of space to work

Our lunch en route

The speedometer - c. 188 miles per hour, about half as fast again as UK trains at full tilt
It was great to see the catchment which will form the focus for our study, just to get an idea of the lay of the land, and the complexity of the site.

Chillis growing in the field

Grapes growing in the next door catchment. The roofing is for rain impact protection

A paddy field in the catchment

A "tipping bucket" at the end of an erosion plot in the field. 

A close up of the tipping bucket. All the water flowing over an enclosed area flows through this device which measures the water volume. The eroded soil, carried by the water is collected in a bag which is then weighed.

Walking along the edge of a paddy field (Joe Oyesiku-Blakemore's t-shirt at the back indicates the temperature - we reckoned about 38 C)

Xinhua Peng (Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Science) talks to Lucile and Josie Geris (Aberdeen) about the catchment inlet

As well as the Sungjia catchment we had a look at the experimental plots at the Red Soil Station near Yingtang where we may also run experiments.

Fang Huang (University of Science and Technology of China) outside the Red Soil Station

Experimental paddy fields at the Red Soil Station

Experimental plots, Red Soil Station

Experimental leaching study at the Red Soil Station

Erosion plots near the Red Soil Station - the concrete walls define an area over which erosion is monitored using tipping buckets
That evening we had our final banquet - this trip I've tried sea cucumber (rather bland), ducks tongue (tasty but odd texture) and turtle delicious) for the first time. I've also noticed that no one eats the jelly fish!
Choose your fish - there were also tanks of other stuff you might like to eat

Typical Chinese banquet - Xinhua is busy toasting Josie and Lucile.

The next day we went on a sight-seeing trip to Turtle mountain - an area sandstone hills near Yiingtang where lots of the hill are supposed to look like turtles. There were walkways - some of which just clung to the sides of the hills.
Turtle mountain rocks - you can see a walkway just above the tree line

A close up of the walk way

More walk ways with drops

Spiralling upwards (or downwards)

Paul and Lucile at the top with a turtle

Heading down again
Joe and Lucile with the bell - hit it three times and make a wish - that's the Nature paper taken care of then!

More turtles!

After the Turtle mountain, Jo and I got on the high speed train to Shanghai. We were very proud of ourselves. Without Chinese guides for the first time we managed to get dinner, find a hotel and make it to the airport the following morning!
All I got to see of Shanghai! The subway took us from Hongquio airport where the high speed train station was to Pudong airport where we flew home.
All told it was a very successful trip. I've now met almost all the project partners, we had useful discussions about the project and saw the field site. Many thanks to our Chinese colleagues, and in particular Xinhua and his students for their hospitality.