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.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Blink and you'll miss it

Whoops, it's August and there hasn't been an entry since February. This just reflects high levels of busy-ness and also sometimes feeling that it wouldn't be appropriate to blog about some of the administrative things I was dealing with (which possibly makes things sound more exciting or contentious than they ever are!)

In May I was in Nantes for my first ever SETAC EU conference. The conference kicked off with some traditional dancing and music which was very much like the bagpipes.

Traditional dancing opened SETAC EU in Nantes plus loud pipes

I was there because there was a special session on microplastics in the environment which was relevant to some work we're doing (read about our preparation for the experiment here) which I've learnt is testing the trojan horse or vector hypothesis, i.e. can plastics adsorb pollutants which are then passed on to what ever organism eats the plastic. A whole bunch of York people were there including:
Jo Witton with her poster on pesticide heterogeneity
Mohd Firdaus Mohd Anuar with his poster on nanopesticides
Delegates looking at posters in Nantes
It was my first SETAC EU meeting and I quite enjoyed it, there were a few very entertaining talks but I fear it will be remembered in SETAC folklore for the very long lunch queues (which I forgot to photograph).

In June I was at the Mineralogical Society Environmental Mineralogy Group Research in Progress meeting hosted by Bristol Earth Sciences department and admirably organised by Oliver Moore and colleagues. Lots of good student talks but here the most memorable thing was that the hotel the organisers recommended that I stay in had complementary sherry in the room. I'm not a sherry drinker so I didn't try it but it seemed rather odd to me, and I almost knocked the decanter over!

Free sherry in all rooms at the Berkeley Square hotel, Bristol

July brought two earthworm events at the Leeds univerrsity farm as part of our SoilBioHedge project. On the 19th July we were recording for a BBC York radio programme - Yorkshire Farming - hosted by Gareth Barlow. You can hear our episode here at least for a while. Apparently the worms bit is on after about 40 minutes. I've got an MP3 file of the programme but I don't know how to upload it to this blog site which only does videos. The most bizarre sight was the pink gazaboes that Richard Grayson and Joe Holden were using to keep the sun off their infiltrometers which they use to measure the pore distribution in the soils.
Jonathan Leake and Gareth recording

A pink Frozen gazebo - hi tech field gear
The infiltrometer below the gazebo

Later in July we were back at the University farm sampling earthworms, or at least searching for earthworms. As part of the SoilBioHedge project we're sampling earthworms throughout the year to get temporal trends of earthworm distributions as well as the spatial distributions which are the main aim of the project. Earthworms are about 90% water and in the summer when it is very dry they either aestivate (a bit like hibernation), burrow very deep or (I'm afraid) dry out and die. So, typically you have very few earthworms in the summer. So it was a bit odd, going out to sample in the knowledge that there wouldn't be many earthworms there. To make matters worse, the soil was rather solid, though interestingly more solid in the arable than pasture fields - an important scientific observation related to compaction of arable fields. In the end we were using hammers to break up the arable soil after sampling it with the aid of a pic axe to get through the upper hard layer. We did find some earthworms but not that many.

A slightly pixilated aestivating earthworm. They create a void, line it with mucus and then coil up and wait for moister conditions.

This is one of the pasture fields. You can see it is more overgrown than on previous sampling trips (December 2015)

 The crops strips have grown as well.
Martin digging pits in a crop strip whilst Josh and Miranda sort soil. You can see how the crop strips are well developed compared to in December 2015.

Jamal, Josh, Martin and Miranda sorting through soil next to a crop strip

The full arable fields posed a more entertaining prospect for digging pits....
Jamal, Miranda and Martin deciding where to sample in an arable field. You can see the crops are far better developed than in October last year.

Where as the full grown hedge was less fun....
Jamal digging a pit in the hedge for sampling

Despite the hot weather and baked soil it still managed to rain a bit so there was also sampling in the Diary building (which is where the hammer was used - no squashed earthworms though!).
Sorting through soil in the Diary building during a rain storm
So that brings things almost up to date. I'm off to Nanjing on Monday for another project meeting follwoing winning funding after that meeting in April 2015.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

It's not a pantomime, it's a family reunion!

Yes, just like buses, nothing for two months then two entries!

This morning I was reminded of York's panto star Berwick Kaler's regular line "it's not a pantomime, it's a family reunion". I'm here with Liane Benning, who is still kind of at Leeds but also now in Germany. On i18 (microfocus XAS, see previous posts) was Iain Burke from Leeds accompanied by Doug Stewart and a bearded Andy Bray looking at vanadium in steel slags (incidently I'm wondering whether Iain makes all his postdocs grow beards, it seems to be taking a "team look" a little too far).

Doug Stewart, Iain Burke and Andy Bray on i18 - the smiles are undoubtedly due to the quality of the flapjack being consumed

Next door on B18 (bulk XAS, never used this beamline) was Caroline Peacock, also from Leeds, working with Fred Mosselmans on molybdenum in aquatic sediments.

Caroline et al.
And then Paul Hallett (Aberdeen, I'm working with him on RedSoil, a NERC - NSFC funded project on the red soil critical zone in China) is on i13 which is an X-ray tomography beamline though he has gone home with a day to go, presumably because he's driving and it's a long way to Aberdeen.

I sometimes think that there ought to be an official circuit race of Diamond - it would make visits here more exciting if people were competing for the best time around the ring. However, if such a race did exist (and I guess I should stress strongly that it doesn't) then the management seem determined to up the ante - there are now three sets of pipes that block the straight route so that what would have been a simple sprint has now become more of a steeple chase.
Stair 1

Stair 2

And would you believe it, stair 3
There are excellent science reasons for these long pipes, tapping off various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation for experiments (just don't ask me what they are!) but they have broken up the circuit. It also reminded me of the, possibly apocryphal, story that when Royalty visited Daresbury (Diamond's predecessor), the beam had to be turned off because a pipe that crossed the circuit around the synchrotron had to be cut out for the visit so that the Royals wouldn't have to duck underneath it. Perhaps that's why they've gone for bridges at Diamond!

Adventures at Diamond

Much to my surprise there's been no entry since December. As Head of Department my life has been taken up with budget setting and the like which is not such fun. However, I have escaped for a day or two to do some science back at Diamond.

I'm here with a remarkably relaxed Liane Benning to do some STXM - scanning X-ray microscopy on i08 helped by the beamline scientists Burkhard Kaulich, Tohru Araki and Majid Abyaneh.
A relaxed looking Liane, i08 clearly agrees with her

Avid readers will be familiar with Liane's and my adventures on B22 looking at amorphous calcium carbonate in earthworm secreted carbonate balls. It's much the same here only you get to wear silly clothes when you put a sample on.
Fashion conscious as ever here I am in the room with the STXM
i08 can look at things in far greater detail, i.e. smaller areas, higher resolution, than B22. We hope to identify areas of calcite, areas of amorphous calcium carbonate and then identify differences in the organic molecules present either in or between these areas. This is really a look see - spotting low concentrations of organic molecules on the basis of their C signature against a background of carbonate that containts, the clue is in the name, lots of carbon, is potentially challenging but you have to try these things.

The i08 control screens

So far things look fairly positive. By looking at calcium we've identified areas that appear to be different forms of calcium carbonate, now we are mapping out the carbon to see if there are any differences that match onto these. More later, fingers crossed.
Typical spectrum from one area of carbonate - looks rather amorphous calcium carbonate like

Whereas this spectrum looks far more calcite like