Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mud yields Pollen while Fire yields Smoke

How does our lab take one cubic centimeter of mud and turn it into individually identifiable grains of pollen? We are so glad you asked! We use a series of chemical treatments on the mud to isolate pollen grains, you see.

MSU Paleoecology Lab Pollen Processing Recipe -- The Basics
shades of mud - samples in 15mL falcon tubes during pollen processing
Step One - apply KOH to loosen sediment
Step Two - sieve to get rid of macro-material
Step Three - apply HCl to get rid of carbonates
Step Four - apply HF (WARNING: very nasty stuff) to get rid of silicates
Step Five - perform acetolysis to get rid of humic material
Step Six - apply alcohol and store in teeny vials with silicon oil

lab manager Caitlyn Florentine smiles after an explanation of acetolysis
Voila! Pollen! Ready for analysis.

Alright, so it is not quite that simple. But essentially these are the steps involved in turning mud into a pollen record that may be interpreted as vegetation history at our sites.

And while Mud yields Pollen..........

...........Fire yields Smoke

It has been one smoky summer here in Bozeman, Montana. It is late August and fires are still starting near and far. The smoke inhibits outdoor activities and views of the Bridgers and surrounding mountains. Check out this photo from August compared to January 2012:

January 2012
August 2012
Yikes! Pretty poor visibility! The smoke may not be ideal, but fire that yields smoke is a landscape-altering process that we as paleoecologists pay a great deal of attention to. WildFIRE PIRE intern Matt Weingart introduced us to a wonderful and interactive online map run by You can check on current fires, fire risk, smoke plumes, among a variety of other weather functions.

WunderMap showing fire activity and smoke in the Montana and Idaho regions. Check it out here.

NASA Earth Observatory has also been posting a lot of fire-related satellite images in their Weekly Natural Hazards updates this summer. Check out this image from the Salmon, Idaho area:

Photo credits: NASA Earth Observatory. See here.
Needless to say - especially to anyone living in the West this summer - fire is an active and pertinent process that affects society and the natural world. Understanding the historical context of these modern fire events is why we are in the Paleoecology business. Our lab techs can be reminded - after hours and hours and hours and hours of counting - that their labors are part of a great and noble mission! Okay, most things in science the data usually do not take on an immediately great or noble face..........but reconstructing fire history in different parts of the world truly is important!