Thursday, 12 November 2015

Chile Day 5

The role of earthworms in agriculture and
the environment
Yesterday I gave my talk. It was due to start at 1200 and we started, according to Chilean tradition as Alexander informed me, at about 1215. There was a good turn out, 50 plus people. I talked and was translated for about 45 minutes and then we had over 30 minutes of questions. I was very impressed by the number of student questions - far more than I usually get in UK seminars. Many thanks are particularly due to Kooichi Vidal who translated as we went along.

Yesterday I also completed the introduction of the paper and Pedro and Jose worked on regressions and tables for the results section.

Today, the main order of business was a field visit with some undergraduates to a contaminated site that people are using phytostabilisation on. Alexander was keen we set an example on timing. The trip was scheduled to leave at 1430. At 1435 we started to go to the bus.....prompt for Chilean time.

Phytoremediation has two main forms - in the first you use plants to extract contaminants from the ground. This is called phytoextraction. It works really well in the lab. and usually doesn't work in the field. The other main methods is phytostabilisation. This just involves getting plants to grow on "nasty" soil to stop the soil blowing away as dust and causing health problems when it is inhaled by people.

The copper smelter in the background
with the degraded "soil" in front
The site we looked at is on the Puchuncavi, down wind of a copper smelter. The soil is developed on old sand dunes. The fumes from the copper smelter acidified the soil and deposited lots of copper and some arsenic. The plants died and the organic matter content of the soil slowly went down.

Gully erosion - the soil is effectively
 sand with few if any roots to hold it
together. Gullies develop when it rains.
The soil now is pretty much sand and subject to lots of erosion.

Alexander's field trials. Along the
 fence are sandy "control" plots - the soil
as is. The plots in front of the people  had
organic matter added allowing plants to
Alexander has run several field trials here. He tried growing plants to take up the copper out of the soil but the copper stayed put. However he was able to add organic matter to the soil which helped plants grow and thus reduce erosion - an example of phytostabilisation.

Some of the pretty yellow flowers
growing on the site.
On the way back alexander spontaneously said that he would buy the students dinner (and the bus driver) so we stopped in Con Con for some Empanada - effectively Cornish pasties, very tasty.

We also made some more progress on the paper and discussed some other things we needed to do before writing it up fully.

Last day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Chile Day 3

The best hotel in town
So yesterday Jose drove me to Quillota and my next hotel - the Open Hotel. Contrary to reports it isn't the only hotel in town so "the best hotel in town" label given it by Alexander grows slightly in significance! It is indeed next to the railway line but the Copper trains only go past a few times a day.

At the hotel I was introduced to Alexander, Pedro and Victor. Pedro, like Jose is an ex MSc student now helping Alexander with research, Victor is a current MSc student. We then had lunch. Lunch is the main meal of the day in Chile.

The Quillota Agronomy school campus
After lunch we drove out to the Agronomy school which is on the edge of Quillota just into the country side, very quiet. There are about 500 students in total - undergraduate and MSc.

I was given an office, told where the kettle was and given a tour of the labs. These are pretty good with most of the stuff that I'd expect in a basic UK soils lab.

My office
A soils lab. I'm pretty jealous of the space
for soil sieving - I'm hoping we get
something similar in our new building

After the lab. tour I was bombarded with data that Victor, Pedro and Jose have gathered and was told that the idea of the funding was that we wrote a scientific paper. In essence there is an earthworm test you can do to see if soil is unpleasant or not. You get a container fill one side with your test soil, the other half with a "nice" soil. Then you put earthworms in the middle of the container and see which soil they go into. If the test soil is unpleasant they avoid it and all go into the "nice" soil.

The experiment that Victor has done is to investigate whether this test could be used to assess Chilean soils for metal contamination - there's a lot of copper mining going on and it can contaminate the soils. The challenge is that other stuff can make soil unpleasant for earthworms and so working out why an earthworm doesn't like a soil isn't always straight forward. Anyway we pondered that and then it was time to go home. Alexander drove me into Quillota to see the sights - took about 5 minutes - then we had a bit of a drive to a restaurant that turned out to be closed and got a puncture so we had to change a wheel. After that we kind of gave up on food and Alexander dropped me at the hotel.

Jose, Alexander, Pedro, Victor and myself 
tucking into a pastel di chocio washed 
down with custard apple juice
Today we made some progress on looking at the data. Despite a lot of uncertainty the  avoidance test does actually spot the contaminated and clean soils quite well. So we now have a plan for a paper as well. At lunchtime we went back to the restaurant that was closed yesterday (no punctures this time) and had a "pastel di chocio" which is like a pie filled with mince, egg, olive, bits of chicken etc. and topped with mashed corn. Apparently this is traditional Chilean cuisine, it was OK. I also had a custard apple fruit juice. Again this was OK but I don't think that I'll repeat the experience.

This evening Alexander tried to take me to a Peruvian restaurant but again it was closed - I can see a pattern emerging! Tomorrow I give a talk to the MSc students. It will be translated into Spanish as I go along. I'm sure it will be a big hit!

A custard apple

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Chile Day 1

Ola! from Chile,

for a change, I have travelled over two days which have been strike free, all very pleasant.

I am here in Chile on the invitation of Dr Alexander Neaman, I've never been to Chile and it's always nice to be asked so here I am. I flew out via Madrid yesterday and arrived this morning. I was met at the airport by Jose Verdejo - he is a very cheerful and friendly sort. I fear the photo doesn't do him justice!

Jose dropped me at the hotel in Vina del Mar and will pick me up tomorrow to take me on to Quillota where Alexander and his team are based in the School of Agronomy, Catholic University of Valparaiso. A bizarre (at least from a UK perspective) thing is the way the trip is funded by the Chilean funding authority. I have to pay the hotel costs but rather than claiming the money back from Fondecyt, the Chilean research funder, I'm given a per diem to spend. Given that £1 is currently worth about 1000 Chilean Pesos this makes things look rather grand - it reminds me of when we did Turkish field work back when I was a postgrad. and we all ended up, near enough Lira millionaires.

This afternoon I walked to the station and went to Valparaiso, the local big city. On the way there I saw pelicans. Valparaiso itself is built on hills so has lots of funicular lifts to get you up and down the slopes which is quite fun. There were some good murals on the walls in one part of the town but other than that, perhaps Valparaiso guards its charm carefully!
Pelicans  - the rock colours show what pelicans do!

Concepcion ascensor - the first of the funiculars and originally powered by steam.

The view across town

The first of several murals in the Concepcion districut

I thought these painted steps were fun as well

I'm pleased to see the hotel has both tsunami and earthquake safety advice - don't use the lifts in either case, if there's an earthquake stay away from the windows, if there's a tsunami get as high as you can. Jose picks me up tomorrow at 11. Before then it's an early night to catch up on some sleep but also I need to finish writing a talk for Alexander's MSc students. As long as the barrel organ player on the plaza below my window stops playing before I want to go to sleep all should be fine.

A quick catchup on various things

I'm horrified to see that I haven't blogged since July. I kept on meaning to but I've clearly been too busy.  Since July I've become head of department and it has all been a bit of a whirlwind. None the less there has been time for a few bits and  bobs of fun.

Kirsty and I were busy in September at Yornight, again telling anyone who would listen how wonderful earthworms are.

Then in October I got invited to a European Chemicals Agency workshop in Helsinki that was all to do with risk assessment. I'm still not entirely sure why I was invited but I'm very found of Helsinki and haven't been since that viva in 2013 so went along and chatted to various old friends from the UK and the Netherlands.
Here we are in a debating chamber discussing risk assessment
I love the view across Helsinki harbour to the islands

and here's Helsinki's cathedral

 The railway station at Helsinki is fine as railways go but I love the outside - these two stone figures holding the lights always remind me of The Pillars of the Kings from the Lord of the Rings

Then in October we were out at Leeds University farm looking at the SoilBioHedge project - it's come along a lot since we were sampling in April. Now in the arable fields the ley strips are well established, hopefully providing superhighways for earthworms to crawl through from the hedges into the arable soil.