Michael Wendlandt is a MSc student at the University of Calgary under Jan Ciborowski, Professor, NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Wetland Reclamation. Wendlandt spent the summer gathering wetland samples in the oil sands region as part of the Chair’s field research team. He describes what a typical day in the field is like.
Being a graduate student is one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career, and one of the most satisfying aspects of my research is heading out to the field to collect the data I need to answer the questions I pose in my thesis. COVID-19 delayed the start of our field season, but we rose to the occasion and developed creative solutions to ensure we could still collect data, while safely working within COVID protocols.
A typical day in the field involves a lot of driving! Over the course of two months, we sampled 40 wetlands, not once but twice and by the end of the field season, I had put over 12,000 kms on my truck, which was our mobile lab. Although the days were busy, we did stop to take breaks, and took a breather midday, eating our packed lunch somewhere we could appreciate the impressive natural landscape.
There were several highlights over the summer! One of my favourites was taking full advantage of our days off to explore the unique features the boreal forest has to offer, from small floating fens to hanging out at Gregoire Lake. Northern Alberta also has some fantastic northern light shows when conditions are right.
Some days we got up as early as 4 a.m. to analyse water samples we had collected the day before as they only have a 72-hour shelf life. We would get back late in the evening to enter the day’s data on datasheets, prepare samples for analysis, and double-check that all our field equipment was working for the following day.
The weather in the area can change quite quickly, and our team had to work around consecutive days of rain, which made the roads muddy and slippery so that we risked getting stuck travelling to our sites. We either used rainy days to travel where we knew mud would not be an issue or stayed close to home and prepped samples and equipment for the next day. We only got stuck twice, one of which was my doing. Fortunately, my team was close by, and once the photos and laughter had stopped, they were able to recover me and my truck.
Sampling also required us to use some unusual equipment. Occasionally, we used an ARGO all-terrain vehicle and two 10-foot aluminum Jon boats to get to the site and then move across shallow, open water wetland areas without disturbing the sediment. Our team also had a dedicated drone specialist who collected high-resolution aerial photography. It was always amazing to see how efficiently remote sensing can be used to collect another layer of information.
Hundreds of samples
I collected samples of soil, groundwater and surface water to analyse the source and amount of water in a wetland. I used water meters and put data loggers in place to record water chemistry properties (such as dissolved oxygen and potential hydrogen (pH)) and physical properties (such as air temperature and water level). In all, I collected 280 water samples, 600 water chemistry readings, 200 soil samples and deployed 160 data loggers!
As a team, we gathered around 440 water samples, 1400 water chemistry readings, 590 soil samples, 615 vegetation community composition samples, 170 vegetation biomass samples, and 400 benthic invertebrate (water organism) samples. These samples will be used to characterize the wetlands that form on reclaimed landscapes. They are also used to study—and eventually forecast—the changes in plants, birds, aquatic life and water characteristics as wetlands develop. By comparing the ones that occur naturally to those that form on reclaimed land, we can begin to measure their success.
Want to find out more about the NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Wetland Reclamation? See this blog.