Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Okay, so it turns out I will be driving down to Las Vegas rather than going to Thunder in the Valley.  This is quite alright with me!  On the way down to Vegas, we will be traversing the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana, and camping at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Then, after exploring the amazing geology at the Craters of the Moon, we shall continue on to Vegas.  After playing a bit in Vegas (yay blackjack!), the plan is to take a day-trip out to the Grand Canyon for even more wondrous geology.  And photographs.

Now, I’ve never been to Craters of the Moon or the Grand Canyon, though I’ve read a lot and seen many pictures.  I am very interested in the geology of each, as well as the roadside geology along the way.  To that end I have ordered the Roadside Geology of Montana and the Roadside Geology of Idaho.  I hope they arrive in time.  But I’m wondering if you, the gentle reader, have any suggestions of specific hikes or trails to take at any location.  I believe we are going to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where most of the trails are listed as “steep” or “very steep” on the park website.  This is not a problem for me, so long as we are prepared.  I just wonder if anyone out there has any other suggestions than what is on the park website.

Oh but I wish I could spend a week or so just in the Grand Canyon….  But oh the photos I will take!

Preparing for a New Term…

My next and final term at SAIT Polytechnic begbins tomorrow.  In preparation, I’ve been cleaning up around the house, but also I have checked out what is already available online.  Some instructors have posted information and assignments already.  Even if it is only the course outline and schedule, it is helpful.

The courses I am enrolled in for this term are:

  • Advanced Environmental Considerations
  • Water & Wastewater Treatment
  • Field Safety
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Environmental Project Management
  • Solid Waste Management
  • Subdivision Planning, Design, and Land Use
  • Environmental Technical Project

That is eight courses, two of which have laboratory components to them, essentially taking the number of courses to ten.

Advanced Environmental Considerations is considered to be a “capstone” course that will include three major term projects.  The very first part of the course, which has already been posted, looks at the analysis and interpretation  of data collected during field school.  Specifically, we collected data on selected parameters of water chemistry at the beaver ponds in Kananaskis Country (see Field School Day 4).  The (seemingly contrived) research question is whether there is “something in the water” that is making some beavers reproduce at a higher rate than others.

The Environmental Technical Project is a week-long work study project that the MacPhail School of Energy calls a “practicum”.  I fail to see how a true practicum can be completed in a single week, but I guess I will see (and hopefully be impressed).  When I hear of practicums (practica?) from other programs or from the University of Calgary, they are semester-long work projects.

I was rather concerned about the Environmental Microbiology course, as I have absolutely zero background in biology.  I studied physics and chemistry in high school, and went straight to geophysics in college/university.  Suffice it to say that my true love has for a long, long time been physics and mathematics.  After talking to the instructor, Shannon Buckley, though, I am really excited about the course.  I don’t delude myself that it will be supremely easy, but I am excited and interested to find out how microbiology is applied to or involved in environmental studies.  For example, one thing that we learned in Site Reclamation (third term course) was that bioluminescent bacteria are used to determine the toxicity of various drilling muds.  I look forward to learning more about this, and possibly doing the test myself.  I’ll keep you posted.

Another course that I am looking forward to is Suburban Planning, Design, and Land Use.  I have joked with my friends many times that city planners don’t actually plan.  Rather, what they do is throw a bunch of needles or toothpicks on a gridded table.  Whatever pattern they form is what the new roads and parking lots in a community will take.  (This is, of course, based on opinion and the experience of living in a city full of labyrinthine communities with more turns than a meandering stream.)  I also was not encouraged after reading James Howard Kunstler‘s The Geography of Nowhere.  If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to do so.  Kunstler makes many cogent observations while discussing the history of America’s development and geography (Canada follows many, if not most, of the same patterns), examining how we went from beautiful, walkable communities to suburban centres  where walking is all but incomprehensible.  In a way, this is a history of car culture.

Given the number of major projects EVT students suffer through encounter in the third term of the program, Environmental Project Management is a course that might fit better in the second semester than the fourth.  Nonetheless, I’m sure it will be an interesting and useful  project that will allow us to learn from the mistakes of past group projects.

Finally, I am really interested in the (waste)water treatment course.  I really enjoyed the  second-term course involving water chemistry (atmospheric chemistry was the other component) and look forward to learning more.  This course involves a laboratory component, and I rather look forward to actually doing some experiments in water chemistry.  The most disturbing point is that the course text, Chemistry for Environmental Engineering and Science, is available at the SAIT bookstore for approximately CDN$215.  I kid you not!  I managed to find a soft-cover version of the exact same edition of the text for a total of CDN$70 (including shipping) on (I’ll update if there are any customs charges).  Of course, I cannot say whether such deals will be available for long, let alone for future years, but if you can find a paperback version of the same edition as that required you will certainly pay much less.

I am really hoping that I will be able to keep this blog updated more than I did last term.  Blogging about school and research is fun, and can be useful to future and current students alike, so long as it is understood that this is one person’s opinion rather than a definitive assessment.

Site Reclamation Project: Part I

I have talked before about the site reclamation project my class worked on over the course of the fall 2010 semester.  In this and the next couple articles, I will talk more about the scenario, what we did, and what we acheived.  I’ll even throw in some pictures for good measure.

The Setup

Our contaminated envrionment is composed of sand, silt loam, water, and open atmosphere.

The contaminated environment is composed of sand, silt loam, water, and open atmosphere, layered in the manner shown to mimic a lake or ocean shoreline. The land was contaminated at the location shown. The water environment was also contaminated, but is not shown here. (Photo Credit: Brad Camroux. Diagram created in Inkscape)

At the beginning of term the class was informed that we would be working on a term project involving the remediation of a contaminated environment.  This environment consisted of a 20-gallon tank filled with sand, loam (soil), and water, in a manner that simulated a beach shoreline.  The environment was contaminated (by the instructor) in two places with crude oil.  Our instructor took initial samples were taken from the soil and water, which were tested (by Wendy and Fara, the wonderful ladies of lab stores) for the BTEX group only (time is money, and these tests take time).

Our task was to apply what we were learning in site reclamation class, as well as other research and collective knowledge, to the contaminated tanks.


With five groups experimenting, each in its own tank, our instructor set up two control tanks, each with the same amount of sand, soil, and water.  One control tank was left uncontaminated; the other received the same amount of crude oil contamination as each of the other tanks.  As control tanks, no attempts were made to remediate the contamination.

Samples were taken from each of the controls at the same time as from the experiment tanks and were tested for the same component(s).  The intent of this was to compare our remediated tanks with the controls in an attempt to determine success and possibly identify areas for improvement.

My Group

My group consisted of myself and four others.  Each of us researched and implemented different techniques: soil washing, phytoremediation, static aeration, nitrogen fertilization, sorbent pads, and methanotrophic charging.  In the next article I will discuss who did what, and how the methods may have affected the environment.

An Eclipsing Solstice

A total eclipse of the moon.

During a lunar eclipse, the moon passes into the earth's shadow. The physical properties of the earth's atmosphere result in the red colouration.

I am excited and hoping for clear skies on this eve of the winter solstice.  For the first time in 456 years there will be a total lunar eclipse in conjunction with the winter solstice.

In North America, you can observe the eclipse, with totality beginning at 23:41 PST December 20, 2010 (07:41 UT December 21, 2010).  The partial eclipse begins at 22:33 PST December 20, 2010 (06:33 UT December 21, 2010), ending at 02:01 PST December 21, 2010 (10:01 UT December 21, 2010).

The winter solstice marks the southernmost extent of the sun.  After the winter solstice, the sun begins its journey back north towards the equator.  The days become longer – slowly at first and accelerating as we approach the vernal (spring) equinox in March.

The last time these two events – a lunar eclipse and the winter solstice – occurred together was in the year 1554 CE.  So, because of the rarity of the event, and also (at least in part) because of the astrological origins of astronomy, many people assign significant mystical, spiritual, or other meaning to it.  Of course, we now know better: astronomy and physics have successfully explained (thank you to Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, and many others for never giving up!) both phenomena and allow us to calculate (with great accuracy and precision) when similar phenomena will occur or have occured.  Still, it can be fun to observe the significant solar events to an approximation of the ancient Pagan rituals.

Field School Day 5

My field school adventures are now done.  We were welcomed on this fifth day with a breakfast of pancakes, hash browns, fresh fruit, bacon, and mixed berry syrup.  Once finished breakfast we all returned to Sibbald Meadows Pond to retrieve the sondes we placed on Monday.  Retrieval was much easier than placement for three of the four groups since we didn’t have to don the hip waders and enter the water.  The peculiar placement of one of the sondes made this exercise necessary for one group, and I got some good pictures of the retrieval.  They will be posted on Flickr soon.

With the sondes safely recovered, we connected them to their control devices to stop the logging of data, recorded the necessary information in our field books, and moved on to our next site, which turned out to be… Sibbald Meadows Pond.  This time, however, we were looking at the different components of steep slopes – one facing south, one facing north.  Our goal was to investigate the types of vegetation on the slope, and where on the slope it is located.  We also recorded microclimate information at the top and bottom of each slope (temperature, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and wind speed).  This exercise was initiated around 09:20, so it was rather crisp and cool.  Had we done the work in the afternoon, there would have been a much more marked difference between the two slopes.  Even still, the north-facing slope was cooler than the south-facing slope (as expected) and both were warmer at the top than at the bottom.

When we were finished with this, we moved on to our final location to see what happens when steep slopes go wrong.  Without an appropriate level of diversity in plant life the soil cannot be held in place and will be washed away.  Then rocks and boulders can be loosened and fall down the slope.  This can kill any vegetation in the path of the falling rocks.  Mitigation methods can include something as simple as terracing in order to reduce water velocity and minimize soil erosion.

Finally we all packed into the vans and headed back to the Field Station for a debrief and lunch.  Our final lunch at the station consisted of hamburgers and kababs, veggies, salad, and iced cream with fruit sauce for dessert.  After ensuring the dorms were clean and everyone had all their belongings, we packed back into the vans and headed for home.  We arrived back at SAIT around 15:00, as planned.

I have posted most of my pictures on my Flickr page already.  The photos I took today, however, will be posted this weekend.  Thanks for watching.

Field School Day 4

Four days down, one to go.  I am both elated and depressed over this fact.  I’ve really enjoyed being here and learning all that I’ve learned, but I’m growing tired of all the complaining about various things, specifically having assignments to do out here.  Anyway, I digress.

This morning opened with the sound of someone hacking up a lung many times over, a sound which reverberated throughout the dorm.  Breakfast consisted of a mediocre cheddar cheese “omlette” (some egg folded over with cheddar cheese inside), as well as bananas with orange pieces, yogurt, shredded potatos, and ham steaks.  This was my least favourite breakfast so far this week.

After breakfast my half of the class headed out to the woods to complete our vegetation sampling and do some wildlife habitat assessment.  We started out by using the point-quarter method to estimate tree density and distribution on one side of the road (the other side was completed by the other half of the class in the afternoon).  This was a rather easy and fast exercise, which was good as the temperature bottomed out around -1 °C, making it rather chilly for doing non-energetic work.

With the tree density exercise completed, we proceeded to examine our transect for evidence of wildlife using the area.  My partners and I were perhaps the most thorough of any group as we used sticks and our feet to move debris out of the way as we attempted to find animal scat (poo).  This search was conducted in a 5-m radius of each sample point along our transect; sample points were located at 0, 2, 5, 10, 15, and 35 metres from the centre of the logging road.  The frustrating part was that we started at zero and did not find any scat until we searched the area around the 15-metre sample point.  There we found evidence of black bear activity, though we have no idea how old it was – the most important thing is that it was not steaming, which is very good.  Around the  35-metre point we located two piles of deer scat, probably from different deer, but it is very difficult to be 100% sure which species without more thorough investigation.  Other teams found more bear scat, some chipmunk scat, deer, and possibly wolf (we cannot be 100% sure without more thorough investigation).  Colin, the instructor, said there was also a red squirrel midden on the other side of the road from where my team was working, so after we were finished I went to find it.  Very cool when you know what it is.

Lunch came next and consisted of burritos/tacos, which was one of the best lunches so far.  After that we went out to the Beaver Ponds to collect water quality data for use in our statistics class.  Four groups collected and tested a total of four surface water samples: three from the shore of three different but connected ponds, and one using the swing sampler in the largest pond which we visited last.  The swing sampler allows us to collect a sample 16 feet from shore using a telescopic pole with a sample bottle on one end.  This gives a total of 16 sets of data, but each half of the class did the work, so we actually have a total of 32 sets of pH, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity measurements.  That is a lot of numbers, which we will analyze statistically to try to identify some correlation with the birth rates of beavers (this is a contrived situation, but the birth rate of  beavers in some ponds has actually exploded in the past few years, for unknown reasons).

We were supposed to go on a traditional knowledge hike with an Elder from the Stony Nation, but he was unfortunately unable to make it.  This gave us an extra hour of free time, but I was a little disappointed that the hike didn’t happen.  I was really looking forward to it.  Oh well.  Maybe next time.

For dinner we had a curried chicken breast, potatoes, veggies, and salad, with orange sherbet for dessert.

Tomorrow we will be collecting the sondes which have been collecting data on pH, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity since Monday September 27, 2010.  This is to be followed by a brief lecture and walk to examine steep slopes.  Then we come back for lunch, do some clean up, and head back home.

Field School Day 3

Day 3 has  been rather long, but lots of fun.  I rolled out of bed at 6:55 but was showered and dressed in time for breakfast at 7:15.  And I must say: breakfast was fantastic.  We had belgian waffles with fruit topping, scrambled eggs, sausages, and fresh fruit.  There was also much whipped cream to be had.

After breakfast, I left with three others to go for a hike up the Barrier Lake fire lookout trail.  All started out well, but as the trail got steeper I fell back a bit.  I’m not used to being the one to hold the group back, so after a point I told the others to go ahead and I would catch up, which I did.  We didn’t go all the way to the lookout – we were all pretty tired, and we had to make sure to get back to the Field Station for lunch, which was hamburgers, potato wedges, and soup, with pudding for dessert.  The best part is that it was bright and sunny, just a little chilly first thing in the morning.  The crappy thing is that I rolled my ankle a couple times, but it was not unusable or badly hurt so I was just fine.

The afternoon’s work consisted of an exercise in vegetation sampling in a road-forest transition.  We used the belt-transect method in an effort to estimate species density and abundance, recording the amount of area each species covered in a 1-m by 1-m quadrat at different points along a linear transect.  (This may not mean much to many readers, but it’s what we did.)  We also collected microclimate data at each sampling location to observe how temperature, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and wind speed varied as we moved into or out of the forest.

I was not so keen on dinner tonight, which had a protein component of grilled salmon.  The rest was alright, though: a nice wild rice and grain dish, a strange fruit salad, and green beans with baby carrots.  Dessert was a delicious apple crisp, but it was a little light on the apple (unless you did what I did and took some extra filling that was left by others).

Now we are all (I will be very shortly also) working on getting our vegetation sampling data into a spreadsheet and uploaded to the course website before midnight, by which time I plan to be sleeping.

Tomorrow we will be doing more vegetation sampling using different methods, such as the point-quarter method used for determining tree species density.  That is in the morning.  The afternoon has us collecting water quality data at Beaver Ponds for use in our statistics/data analysis/interpretation class.

Oh yeah… I have to say also that the UofC BGS staff is great in at least one way: they encourage the practice of the navy shower (they call it a marine shower, though).  Unfortunately they did not talk about this during their briefing on Monday, so I will have to mention that in my comments when we leave.