Tapping into local knowledge
During the 2019 field season, Riveros-Iregui’s students constructed and monitored a series of experiments to measure water flow, dissolved oxygen, and forms of carbon like carbon dioxide and methane. The goal of the 2021 field season is to restart the measurements that stopped because of the pandemic. Riveros-Iregui hopes to collect observations for an entire calendar year to gain knowledge about carbon outputs in the páramo during both the dry and wet seasons.
But collecting data for just a few months in the páramo is tricky. All the research monitoring stations require batteries that need to be checked and changed on a weekly basis, sensors could be swept away during thunderstorms, and a washed-out road could prevent access to a field site. Plus, replacing damaged equipment is either expensive or impossible in Ecuador, which imports most of its scientific instruments from other countries.
“You have to roll with the punches and try to make the best of the situation when a sensor stops working,” Whitmore says.
During the first week of the 2021 field season, Whitmore discovered that a few of the 2019 sensors had stopped recording data. This need for continuous monitoring means multiple researchers need to be involved — and that’s why Riveros-Iregui has partnered with Suárez Robalino.
A terrestrial ecologist and Ecuadorian native, Suárez Robalino has invaluable local knowledge of the páramo and lab space on campus, both of which have been vital resources since the project began. This year, he’s involved Chimbolema and Jaramillo so that they can help monitor the stations after Whitmore and her team return to the states.
“Having this wide breadth of knowledge is incredibly useful because it takes years to accrue,” Whitmore says. “Segundo, for example, is enormously capable and confident, really knows what he’s doing, and has a ton of experience. And that is the most valuable person on the team, I think. Because they can really help you think about how things can be set up correctly and, when things go wrong, they have the experience to fix it.”
For Chimbolema and Jaramillo, both local to Ecuador, any research in the páramo is good research.
“To study the páramo and to provide knowledge about what the páramo gives us, not only in Quito but the whole country, is important because of water,” Chimbolema says. “If we do not preserve the páramo we are not going to have water.”
The páramo provides about 85 percent of all drinking water for Ecuador and is a source of the greater Amazon watershed. About 60 percent of the flora that grow there are endemic, meaning they aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. This landscape is not only threatened by the changing climate, but agricultural and industrial activities.
“It’s a really important ecosystem,” Whitmore stresses. “And it is an ecosystem that is being quickly converted to different land uses and is heavily used by people. Páramos are very difficult to reach and very difficult to study, so we don’t know what’s going on in them. We don’t understand how much carbon is coming off of these landscapes as carbon dioxide or methane. Understanding that is significant for the entire carbon cycle, for the global carbon cycle. That atmosphere is everybody’s atmosphere.”
The sun sits high overhead as Whitmore stands in a waist-deep trench and holds a piece of rebar as Jaramillo uses a sledgehammer to secure it in the ground. They’ve been at this for about five hours and have yet to break for lunch. On top of the rebar now in place, Whitmore attaches a gray box that contains a sensor for measuring carbon dioxide. Five of these monitoring stations are spread throughout the páramo.
Farquhar sits on the edge of the trench and watches a stream of water slosh around Whitmore’s boot-clad feet. It is one of many in the intricate web that is the local watershed. She snaps out of her reverie and looks back to the GPS unit in her hand, reporting the coordinates to Whitmore. This is the only way to keep track of the sensors, most of which remain invisible to the average observer thanks to the reserve’s carved-out canals and abundant foliage.
“The hydrology setup is unreal,” Davis says. “In our páramo, specifically, there are just pockets of wetland. You never know where a stream is going or coming from. That’s really cool to me.”
Within the first week of the project, Whitmore and her team deployed 20 sensors across the paramo, all of which require weekly monitoring. They also installed three solar panels to reduce battery usage. In just eight weeks, they experienced blinding fog, sleet, and snow — and even a rockslide that prevented the van from getting to one of the field sites. They walked eight miles to collect the data.
The demands of this kind of fieldwork invigorate Whitmore.
“I love being outside. I love a challenge and doing something that most people have never done,” Whitmore says. “I’m a really curious person, and I get bored easily. In the field, there’s always something to see and think and wonder about.”
The Ecuador project is far from over. Since returning to Chapel Hill in late July, Whitmore has continued to monitor the project from afar through regular check-ins with her USFQ counterparts. In the lab at UNC, she’s busy analyzing water and methane samples collected in the field and logging data from the carbon dioxide sensors.
Whitmore will return to the field later this year to check the sensors, change out the batteries, and troubleshoot any other problems that may have arisen since August. In 2022, she will bring a different group of students to the field to collect another round of measurements for her dissertation.
“This experience offers me the chance to build my confidence as a project leader,” Whitmore shares. “And it reaffirms that I really love this subject, and I love working with people on this topic. Working with people who are also excited about these things and getting to talk to them about it is a beautiful thing. It’s wonderful.”
Kriddie Whitmore is a PhD student in the Department of Geography within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.
Diego Riveros-Iregui is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geography within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.
By Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors