We are a group of freshwater ecologists from the Biology Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota studying the effect of temperature and nutrient availability on metabolism and nitrogen fixation in geothermally active streams in the Hengill region of Iceland. This is a collaborative research effort with our partners from Montana State University, the University of Alabama, the University of Iceland, and the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries in Iceland. See links to our collaborators labs below.

Friday, June 26, 2015

24-hour mission

By: Abbi White, Bree Vculek, and Hilary Madinger            

Last night we spent the night under the Icelandic midnight sun camping at our Hengill sampling sites. It was an unbelievably beautiful night! Sunday afternoon was a rare Icelandic sunny day and the night was a continuous sunset. We were even visited by Jill and Jon who delivered pizza, falafel, and chocolate (Sirius chocolate, an Islandic treat). Perhaps our experience wasn’t quite rustic…
The mission for our trip was to try collecting diel (24 hour - hence the overnight camping) water samples to calculate net nitrogen fixation. Every hour we collected water samples, temperature, and air pressure from the stream in two different places. When we are all done sampling, the water samples will fly back to Wyoming with Hilary to be analyzed on a membrane inlet mass spectrometer (MIMS). Then we will run the data through a model to estimate  net nitrogen fixation. The basic idea of how the model works is that using the temperature and air pressure measurements we can calculate what the expected dissolved gas concentrations of the stream would be if it was in equilibrium with the atmosphere. But streams are not at equilibrium because there are biological processes changing the dissolved gas concentration. So we will compare the dissolved gas concentration in our water samples with the concentration we expect due to temperature and pressure alone and the difference in the dissolved nitrogen = net nitrogen fixation!

Since we collected hourly samples, we also had time to do a bit of exploring in the valley. We went for a midnight hike up one of the mountains, kept our feet warm with mud from a hotpot, drank water from a spring head, and embraced nature for a night. We also squeezed in some additional stream measurements to help with our analysis. Overall, we had a great time together sampling and camping and highly recommend the experience. Now we are anxious to see how the results look.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Your Majesty

Upon my initial arrival to the Hengill Valley stream site, I felt as if I had stepped onto another planet. The rolling hills, volcanic rock, boiling and steaming earth, and shades of green, brown, and gold graced the landscape and captivated my attention. The smoky gray fog glistened with mystery. The land is majestic. The cool, crisp, mesmerizing breeze and running water quickly snapped me out of my trance and we proceeded to prepare the experiments that will be our summer's work.

Hengill Valley, Iceland
Fieldwork has always been my favorite part of research, which is a clear indication of my love for the field of ecology. Water? Sand? Mud? Count me in! Not only is our field site one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid my eyes on, I find the unpredictable weather, the physical and mental intensity of experimental innovation, and the long days away from civilization, to be quite appealing.

Photo by Jim Hood.  Experiment where we are warming
a cold stream to 5 different temperatures, while also adding
nitrogen to some to see how the algal communities respond.
All using geothermal heat!
So far, I have spent much of my time in the field working with the team on the stream channel experiment. This has been a big job, and it has been exciting to be a part of it. I have greatly enjoyed learning some engineering, plumbing, and aquatic ecology from Dr. Jim Hood (who arrived in Iceland in early May to get this experiment up and running) from Montana State University. I am repeatedly mesmerized by the geothermal activity of the Earth, and the way we can channel that energy to experimentally vary water temperatures.

Checking out the N-fixers in one of our warm streams with
Jill and Abbi.

Back in the lab, we have been prepping for the nitrogen fixation measurement procedures and practicing our technique.  We are anxious to get our sampling underway!  Soon....

We will start that part of our work next week.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Home Away from Home

I never tire of this view from the plane window as we make our way from the Twin Cities to Iceland.  In fact, despite the late hour, I can never sleep and always have my camera at the ready, as deep night flips to bright day before my eyes.  Then, Greenland comes into view, if we are lucky enough to have clear skies.  The clouds usually break as we cross from sea to land over Greenland, but sometimes it is difficult to discern the snow covered peaks from the clouds and I have to stare long and hard out the window before I discover that yes, I can see Greenland below!  I hope to visit there someday soon and expand some our research questions to aquatic environments in Greenland.  What an amazing place it must be.

Greenland comes into view.
Iceland continues to captivate me - an amazing country, people, and place to get to  know.  I am reading the Icelandic Sagas and continue to work on my Icelandic with local friends and the scientists at the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, but some sounds and syllables seem impossible to replicate.  I will not give up...

We have a great team here this year from St. Kate's, Montana State University, and the University of Alabama, and I am really excited to work with such an energetic and dedicated crew. We have some big experiments in front of us and  more troubleshooting to do following the long winter, but, I look forward to the greening of the landscape that is starting to emerge, as well as the explosion of cotton grass, and the upcoming results of our work.  It is going to be a great summer.  

Hengill Valley - home away from home.
We have a big week coming up that will involve lots of intensive sampling with the whole team, as well as some camping at our field site.  Unfortunately, it also looks like we may encounter a lot of rain (see the forecast link on our blog site).  But, at least we will have light!  Current day length here is over 20 hours, but it never completely darkens.  So, that will help make navigating the streams at night easier, even though we may be pretty wet!  We will report back on our progress soon.  Here's to hoping for some good weather!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Summer Coming Slowly This Year

Delor working on the sidechannel experiment.
Yes, it is sunny, but cold!
We have arrived in Iceland for the 2015 field season and summer is slowly trying to catch up with us.  It has been a long and snowy winter in Iceland and this summer is expected to be a relatively cold one. That said, we have had some wonderfully sunny days this past week.  As a result of the intense winter, many of our streams remained covered with snow and ice longer than anticipated and our experiments are running a little behind schedule.  So, this has meant that the team (primarily Jim Hood and the early crew that has helped to set up the experiments) has been constantly occupied with hard field work to get things set up and underway.  The St. Kate's crew has been scattered among the various efforts since our arrival and we don't even have a team photo to post yet, as all of us have been in different locations and out in the field on different days.  But, spirits are strong and we are having fun.  The St. Kate's team is enjoying Iceland, getting to know the Icelandic scientists and the larger team, and learning much about the work to come.  

Delor and Jim tinkering with the temperatures
in the header tanks that feed water to the channels.
Delor will be in charge of running the streamside channel experiment where we are warming a cold stream to 5 different temperatures and 6 levels of nitrogen enrichment.  As a result, she has been working with Jim Hood to get this experiment set up and to learn the ins and outs of managing the flows, temperatures, and nutrient additions so that she can troubleshoot the experiment as needed throughout the summer.  I was happy to hear from them as they returned from the field quite late last night that the experiment is now fully up and running.  This is a huge accomplishment and we are grateful to them for their amazing work on this.  So, it looks like we are now officially underway.

Tomorrow, we also start adding 15N (a heavy naturally occurring isotope of nitrogen that can be used to track the movement of nitrogen in our streams) to 4 of the streams in Hengill that span our temperature gradient.  We will sample the stream intensively over the next 5 days and continue sampling over the course of the summer to monitor the movement of our isotope through the bacteria, algae, and invertebrates. So, we are ramping up and the team is learning all of the procedures needed for the sampling.  We can feel the calm before the sampling storm.....

Bree hiking close to the channel experiment site.
While the landscape is still a bit brown and snowy,
the hot pots are steamy! 

Bree and Abbi arrived last Sunday and immediately went to the field to help with the channels.  They had a chance to do some hiking that day as well, and just yesterday they spent some time exploring Reykjavik.  They will be crucial members of the team this summer and I am excited to get our sampling underway this week.  In fact, we will be camping out at Hengill a few nights this week to collect diel samples - we will be collecting gas samples from the streams every hour for 24 hours and helping to check the 15N drips.  So, more to follow soon and we will be sure to get a few team photos!  
View of Reykjavik from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Summer of Firsts

Exploring the Old Harbor in Reykjavik
and taking in the views of the mountains.

Putting a final close to my sophomore year and wrapping up the short summer break I’ve been spending in Minnesota for the past two weeks, I am beginning to pack my belongings, in effort to prepare myself for the unpredictable weather in Iceland. I am eager and overwhelmingly excited to be able to join the 2015 Iceland research team. I never imagined that I would be sitting here writing about my soon to be first research experience, first international travel experience, and all of the other firsts I will be encountering in only a few days. I hope to grow not only as a biologist, but also as a student so that I can gain new skills that I can bring back to Minnesota when we are through with this summer’s research project.

This summer I will experience my first research opportunity, with the support of Dr. Jill Welter and all of the wonderful collaborators I will be joining, as we take on the challenges the Hengill region has in store for us.  This is my first chance to get hands on experience doing fieldwork and I am excited, nervous, and very unsure of what to expect. I hope to gain confidence and knowledge, so that I am able to use this in my studies at St. Catherine University and also when I am out in the field working on both my own research project and the contributing to the larger group research project as well. And, this is another “first”- I will get the opportunity to take on my own research project! I will be studying ecological stoichiometry. I am still piecing together the details of my project, but it is coming along!

Waiting to get picked up at Reykjavik
Excursions to join the research team!

This summer I will also have my first international travel experience outside of the United States. In preparation for the trip, I applied for my first passport and my first stamp will be from Iceland! This summer I will learn to adapt very quickly to a new style of living along with the weather, people, environment, and attempt to sleep in the land of the midnight sun.  I am so excited for this opportunity, which will allow me to experience a part of the world that I would otherwise not have had a chance to visit. Since I know I will have so many more first experiences in Iceland, I look forward to sharing my collection of firsts when we arrive in the beautiful country! Wish us luck as we embark on a thrilling and intense summer of research, laughter, hard work, fun, and adventure!