Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Please, No Field Work in January

...at least, not in the northeast corner of America.

I had suspected this would be a bad idea from the first, given that below-freezing temperatures and diving into waves tend to combine badly. My personal history with cold weather and the Great Outdoors is mixed at best: one memorable winter in undergrad, I went caving in a relatively "easy" cave with just a couple of dunks under water between the entrance and exit and managed to lose literally all feeling in my arms and legs about halfway through. Quick thinking by my trip leader and a helping hand from one of the stronger people in the group got me out safely, but I maintain a healthy respect for winter outdoor activities since.

I also tend to get cold after a couple of minutes in the ocean during the summer, so I was fairly certain that winter-plus-water-plus-wind-chill would be a recipe for disaster. Or at least a mild bout of hypothermia.

But what's the point of ingrained fears of the natural world if you can't use them as excuses to get out and test your theories?

That was precisely my intention yesterday, when I corralled a large group of lab mates and one undergrad freshmen into accompanying me to my study site, Norton Point on Martha's Vineyard, to take video for educational and research purposes in the middle of January.

The weather was actually the best we've had all month. There were minimal clouds, temperatures above freezing, and relatively low wind chill. The lab crew and I were optimistic that we would be able to take some good footage of the area and have a good time outside on the beach watching some really cool physics at work.

The beach was indeed really awesome, and it was amazing to see how far the Point had moved since I had last been out in late August. The waves on the ocean side were magnificent -- larger than I had seen in the summer and outlined crisply against the horizon.

We parked the lab truck as far down the Point as we could, then walked the rest of the (roughly) 2.5 miles to the end of the sand spit. Hats were worn, gloves were on, coats were buttoned as far up as they could be. The wind was at our backs for the trip down, so we felt confident enough to set up a couple of shots of the area and spend some time filming for an educational video the undergrad and I are working on (more on that later, I hope!!).

When we started getting further out to the point, however, the wind picked up. We were right on the ocean, with nothing (not even convenient dunes) between us and the breeze charging in from the Atlantic. Any video we got at the Point (which looked amazing! Maybe only 25 meters to go before closing) was overshadowed by the wind whipping at our backs.

And then it came time for the trek in the opposite direction. By now, the wind was going full tilt at our faces. You think it is hard to walk on sand on a normal day for a couple of miles? Try it with freezing wind impeding your every step, making your nose run to warmer climates, and solidifying any extremities unfortunate enough to have only one layer of cover.

That was miserable. And we were just walking. On a nice day. Imagine trying to carry sensors and tools through that wind in the same location. In the rain. Or snow. Imagine if you get the sensors into the beach, and then have to leave them for a month in the winter. I guarantee you are going to get ice, at best. Which means hapless grad students like myself will probably be tasked with returning at regular intervals during the month to scrape off the ice and check the sensors. Probably to bring a couple back for a nice burial. In the rain. Or snow. Or just plain ol' wind.

Now you know my opinion on winter field work. And why this kind of work is inherently difficult to do year round.

But. Then again. As I said in the beginning, there is no point to having an irrational fear of the natural world if you can't use it as an excuse to get out and do some science.

So, yes, in the end I might be that hapless grad student, freezing on the beach in January while trying to maintain enough dexterity in my fingers to put a sensor back in working order. Because science. And if it were easy, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

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