Glamorous, world-changing, nice-smelling science?


Generally, when we think of science we think of lab coats and test tubes. Sparkling, sterile laboratories where PhDs churn out new truths. At least when it comes to most environmental sciences this is not the case. While a large part of science will always take place in the lab, it has to start in the field.

In an entirely unexpected opportunity I got to help with some of the fantastic, dirty work that we also know as science. In a series of unexpected events one of the park scientists, that my boss is old friends with, was doing some research in the park and I got the privilege if tagging along.

In science-y terms, we were collecting temperature sensors in the intertidal zone. In actuality, we were getting hit by waves and unbolting PVC pipes from rocks. They have these tiny little temperature sensors called tidbits. They leave these little things out there in the ocean for three years with just a little scrap of PVC pipe to protect them from the rocks. These tiny little sensors take a temperature reading every hour and store it on the device for us to come back and collect later.

This all sounds pretty straightforward, but there are some hiccups in the plan. The first and biggest problem is finding these things in the first place. Unfortunately, the records of the person who initially placed the sensors were not exactly what you would like to see.

There was a slightly hazy GPS coordinate that lets you find a reference bolt. This is a big steel bolt drilled directly into the rock. From that point they give you a distance and a bearing to where this sensor supposedly is. The trick is even a degree or two off on the bearing makes these things really hard to find. The real problem stems from the fact that the entire area is covered with rockweed, and half of the time they are actually still underwater at low tide.

So once we tracked down where the sensors actually were, we had to unbolt them from the rock while dodging the waves. Then we scraped the area clean and put a fresh sensor out while trying to keep our feet just a little bit dry. Then, in what is probably the most important part of the process, we take better GPS coordinates and a panoramic picture so whoever replaces these things next time knows exactly where to look.

The real question is why did I spend my afternoon slogging through the brush and the rockweed after some little temperature sensors? What can the temperature of the ocean tell us?

Honestly we aren’t really sure yet. It might be able to tell us if the intertidal zones are moving or if human activity affects the shore line. Right now the project is still in development, but the data is always useful. The better we understand our environment the better decisions we are able to make.

So is it glamorous? No. Is it world changing? Probably not. Does it smell nice? Not even close. Would I have rather been doing something else? No way, I got to be a part of some actual science for an afternoon and there’s nothing else I would have rather been doing.