Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Fieldwork - slippery when wet

By Dr Karen Scott (@DrKarenScott)

Whenever fieldwork is mentioned the first thing that comes to my mind is long summer days walking in t-shirts by lakes or across fields (or Hull council estates as most of my PhD sampling days were spent), maybe even in an exotic location or an overseas field trip. However, it’s no secret this is not always the case, especially in this field where outdoor working is a necessity whatever the weather (much to my parents surprise who thought as soon as the temperature dropped below t-shirt weather, it became slightly chilly or the forecast suggests a bit of drizzle, it would be home time).

In fact I sit writing this having spent 6 hours trudging across the Yorkshire Moors in freezing rain that came at you sideways (no matter what direction you faced) and eating my soggy sarnies sheltering in a gully trying not to fall into a patch of boggy bare peat. And it’s with the recent weather hitting the news, I thought I’d blog about the effects of weather on fieldwork, or more so, how its put up with (I will try to avoid moaning where possible!).

 These pictures were taken within 24 hours of each other

Starting my new job in September (working on a project assessing moorland management on water quality at the University of Leeds, meaning 3-4 field days a week) I was greeted with relatively warm long days with beautiful views across the moors - which I wasn’t shy in sharing, after all it beats the office wall! But this soon changed as winter reared its head. The thing I found most interesting during field work as winter started to set in was how everything changed so quickly and how I had to change how things were done. The lack of daylight was the main issue - having to set off early to squeeze as much daylight into your working day as possible, which is something you don't normally have to think about when you are heading into the office every day. Relatively dry areas of land turned into huge boggy patches that would swallow your wellies before you had a chance to work out which piece of heather you could reach to drag yourself out. You never really find out what kind of land you are safe to walk on / avoid until you’re shin deep in it – I find frosty/snowy days the worst, as there will always be that one bog that has thawed a bit more than the others you have walked across! A lot of the vegetation dies off, which in theory isn’t a bad thing when walking along the flat, but when steep banks become involved that’s when it is time to be cautious as they become quite slippery. I generally approach these with a foot slide or a bum slide, because let’s face it, I’m probably not going to be spending much time on my feet! 

Bleak view for four hours
Chilly day in the field wearing approximately 12 layers!
Due to the change in weather my bag seems to have doubled in weight. This is mainly due to extra batteries for the equipment (they aren't as keen on the weather either), extra clothes (in case I fall in a stream and need a spare pair or it gets too cold and I have to bulk up), a flask containing luke warm tea, extra food (obviously for the cold, and not to cheer me up on bleak days) and extra water samples (with the weather being wetter the streams run more, so I need to collect more to carry home). Gauging the weather forecast in remote areas is always a difficult one. Finding the nearest town to your site seems like a good idea at first, and can be quite uplifting when you are driving to your site, it might looks a bit misty and chilly but generally a decent field day. Until you got up to the tops, turn that corner, and are greeted with snow / blizzards / hail / bears (got to be prepared!). And to finish on my favourite: the waterproofs... They never seem to be 100% dry and after going over a few stone walls they always seem to leak in the worst place.

As much as bad weather can put a damper on fieldwork (no pun intended) I still enjoy the variety it gives my job and the sunny days always outweigh the wet and the cold ones. Plus there are always others ways to brighten up the wet and windy days where it’s impossible to stand upright and even your waterproofs have given up, such as cake.

Perfect end to the day!

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