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  • Water Production Connections

Postcard from the Field: A Day in the Life of a Hydrologist

By Camila Abe; Edited by Corrie Monteverde

Researchers working in the field
Camila Abe, Ph.D. student, working in the field

The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience changes in rainfall, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses expected when drying occurs. An improved understanding of these responses will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers adjust to changes in water availability.

As part of our hydrology-focused research, I flew to Brazil the last summer to do my first fieldwork in Rondônia. Although I am Brazilian, I had never been to our Northern region and this was my first opportunity to do a proper and interesting field campaign. I was very excited!

The preparation for the fieldwork started way before, as my advisor (Dr. Trent Biggs), along with our partners in Rondônia (Dr. Elvino and Eng. Cleiton) and I, were trying to understand why the motor of our rainfall simulator was no longer working in Rondônia. One of those unforeseen issues that happen with equipment. “Maybe the climate is just too hot”, “maybe there’s something broken”, or “Maybe it simply deteriorated over time”. After some meetings, discussions, and some hydraulics calculations, we figured it out and I was finally ready to head to Rondônia.

Being born and raised in Southeast Brazil, I always had the stereotypical idea about the North region: lots of fresh açaí (served at lunch, with salted sides instead of sweet fruits and condensed milk), lots of exotic Amazonian fruits juice, fish, and of course the vegetation and landscape (beautiful veredas!). But I also knew some of Rondônia's history of colonization and the state’s reputation for having extensive pasture areas for milk and beef production. However, to my surprise, Rondônia (or at least the places I went: Rolim de Moura, Ouro Preto D’Oeste, and Ji-Paraná) did not have all that Northern stereotype. I was amazed at the rich cultural diversity in the region that mixes different Brazilian backgrounds in the same city! It was the first time I saw the veredas and could attest they are indeed beautiful, and I was very impressed with how dry the soil and pasture can be in the dry season.

Cattle, pasture, and forest
Cattle roaming a local farm

I started the fieldwork at Rolim de Moura, where we tested the solutions for the failing motor and as we got it working, we went to visit some farms and perform some rainfall simulations. Simulating rainfall over the pasture is a very interesting and helpful way of measuring runoff, and water infiltration into the soil, and having some estimate of interception. The work was hard as we had to be at the entire day at the pasture (under the sun, with no shadows and several ticks!) and dig into the very dry/hard soil (although this task was left for the men, for my relief). We set out for the field every day early in the morning. Undergraduates and graduate students were always helping us and were very excited about the simulations. Dr. Elvino, who is a professor at UNIR, was very excited too and even took the advantage of the fieldwork to challenge the students (myself included), asking what we should expect of infiltration or runoff in different pasture conditions (grazed, tall grass, etc). For the tall grass, everyone was expecting to see more infiltration and less runoff, as we typically learn how vegetation decreases runoff and improves infiltration. However, our simulation showed us the exact opposite right before our eyes! Everyone was quiet for a few minutes, trying to understand what was happening, and checking if we were doing the simulation correctly... Then we examined the grass and figured it out. Turned out that the dry tall grass has a layer of dry dead leaves under it, and that layer covers the top of the soil preventing the water to infiltrate, thus enhancing runoff. I found this situation a great example of how fieldwork can surprise us by sometimes not corroborating our expectations, even when they are based on solid theory and are observed in several other situations.

Researchers smiling at the camera as they conduct hydrological research
Researchers enjoying a day of work in the sun

Spending the day in the field was also a great opportunity to learn more about our collaborators’ stories, their background, and their interests. Having the aspiration of becoming a professor in the future, I was also very happy to see so much interest, especially from undergraduate students.

It was only the first week of fieldwork when I left Rolim de Moura and I was already feeling very tired, but even more happy and excited about our work, the data collected, and the upcoming fieldwork at Ji-Paraná.

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