Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mat Wooller's Extreme Dining and Russian Peat Cores

Extreme Dining Society Belize
Mat Wooller

         Contrary to the image of the stereotypical scientist, most of us like to have just as much fun as anyone. For us on Carrie Bow, we started a tradition called "Extreme Dining". Mat Wooller was a leader in many ways on these Belize trips: boat tender, sample organizer, out of the box thinker, and prankster. Out of many memorable escapades was his instigation of the Extreme Dining Society. He’d organized one or two of these up in Alaska. Diners were required to don formal attire (e.g., tuxedos for the men and evening gowns for the women). In Alaska, the diners rafted down a chilly Arctic river while consuming a four course meal.
         In Belize, we scouted out an appropriate location--a small 5 meter coral island barely above sea level. Wooller brought china, cutlery, wine glasses, and an ancient gramophone down from Alaska with him. On the evening of the formal dinner, Martha loaded up coolers with hot food and cold foods. We assembled a potted plant, boards to construct a table, chairs, table clothes, and the Belizian flag into two boats. The menfolk waded ashore first and set up the dining area. The womenfolk remained in the boats and put on their dresses, while the men turned their heads to the other direction. Finally when all was ready, we women were carried ashore so as to not sully off formal clothes.
         As the gramophone played old timey music, we lifted our glasses to a toast. Having way more fun than a scientist is supposed to have, our research cares slipped away and we discussed other topics. At the end of the meal, dancing began with slow waltzes and some jitter bugging getting our feet wet as we danced. A couple of other boats saw us, came closer to see if we were in distress then veered away wondering what the heck was going on. Before sunset, we packed everything up, leaving no trace and returned to Carrie Bow.

Examining the Past Belize’s mangrove islands:
         One of my goals as a biogeochemist is to learn about present ecosystems so that I can understand how these ecosystems functioned in the past. In particular, scientists are interested in knowing how the environment at any location might have changed over geologic time. We refer to this line of work as paleoenvironmental reconstruction--figuring out what climate and biological parameters were important. In order to accomplish this work, we needed to collect cores of the sediments meters in length that had been laid down on the mangrove islands over the past 10,000 years. Sediments on these islands are composed of about 20% mineral sediment--usually carbonate from weathered corals--and 80% peat--organic remains of mangrove tissues and microbial muck.
         Starting with a trip to Florida’s mangrove swamps near the Smithsonian’s Pierce Laboratory, Wooller started his quest to sample mangrove peat. He sharpened the edges of PVC pipes or found old, rusted iron pipes at the back of the station, that he tried mostly unsuccessfully to get decent cores. At the end of every attempt he always noted, “What we need is a Russian peat corer!” His attempts extended to Twin Cayes, and again were stymied by the lack of a Russian peat corer. Even the station managers, hearing him over dinner, knew about the Russian peat corer. Finally, in 2003, I purchased one and we brought it down to Belize. A full Russian peat corer kit comes with a series of 0.5 meter extension rods, one “business end”, a handle, and an attachment to engage and disengage the rods.
         The business end had a dense 10 cm pointed metal tip that sliced smoothly through the peat. The barrel was a half cylinder that was covered by a sharp blade running its entire length. When the corer was pushed into the peat, the handle turned the corer 180°allowing the blade to cut through the peat. We were able to sample 10 meter cores in this manner, lifting 0.5 sections up each time. Although the work was physically demanding, the results from coring were first rate. Usually samples were shipped back to Alaska for sampling leaf fragments and pollen.
         Mat Wooller went on to establish analytical proxies of sea level and conditions using peat cores from Twin Cayes and Spanish Cay in Northern Belize (Wooller et al., 2003, Wooller et al., 2007, Monacci et al., 2009 ). For example, we determined that small leaf fragments buried in surface sediments had nitrogen isotope signals similar to the isotope signals of the type of trees growing just above. Fragments with unusual nitrogen signals corresponded to dwarf trees, whereas as leaf bits with more typical nitrogen signals denoted fringe trees.
         Using the isotope signals of leaf fragments plucked from peat cores, we were able to determine whether mangroves came from dwarf (shallow water), transition (higher land), or fringing (coastal) mangroves. Coupled with accurate dates from the leaf fragments and pollen records, Wooller and team assembled a climate and environmental record of the Holocene in tropical Belize. They could tell when sea level rose quickly versus when it slowed.

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