Field Notes: Scrubbing Rocks, and Other Things Scientists Do

Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

TOOLIK, Alaska —Finding myself with a relatively open schedule yesterday, I spent my breakfast asking around the dining hall for any projects I could help with or observe. As luck would have it, the stream researches had a job for me: rock scrubbing. There are times when scientific research procedures require the use of advanced instruments and techniques. Then there are times when the procedures are mind-numbingly simple.

Rock scrubbing, which is exactly what it sounds like, belongs in the latter category. We arrived at the Kuparuk River armed with plastic tubs and wire grill brushes. Filling the tubs with a sampling of the dark, smooth stones that form the riverbed, we plunked ourselves down on the bank and proceeded to scrub the rocks clean with the grill brushes. The scrubbing roughs up a slimy brown film of what looks like mud, which we rinsed into a separate plastic tub. Then we scrubbed again, and rinsed again. Scrub. Rinse. Scrub. Rinse. Eventually, the scrubbing produced no layer of slime and the rock surface felt rough. At this point, we released the rock back into the river with a casual toss and the process began again with the next rock. After all the rocks had been scrubbed, we poured the resulting muddy water into carefully labeled bottles and stored them in a black garbage bag for later analysis in the lab.

This is how I happily whiled away the morning hours next to the idyllic Kuparuk, a clear sky bringing warmth, and a lively breeze keeping the mosquitoes at bay. From an outside perspective, it would have appeared ridiculous—three people scrubbing away at rocks and collecting the bathwater. There was, however, a purpose to our toil. The rock scrubbing releases diatoms, a type of algae that are at the very bottom of the food chain in aquatic environments. The stream researchers are trying to characterize the quantity of diatoms in the river, and how that quantity changes as a result of the nutrient levels in the water. In other words, if more fertilizer is added—either artificially as part of an experiment or naturally from thawing ground—how will that affect the food chain in a river?

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.


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