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On Frost and Fretful Stations

December 17, 2020

Person in snowy sagebrush
Enjoying the frosty morning, Dec. 17, 2020

It was a breathtakingly beautiful morning today, 10ºF by the thermometer on my dashboard as we parked and prepared to hike over to the Spring Valley station. The low angle of the sun made the frosted heads of cheatgrass a glittering foreground to snowy Mount Sopris in the distance. Martín and I crunched our way across the field and into the sagebrush, then the junipers, also encrusted with gems of ice. It’s easy to forget how wonderful a morning in the field can be during our computer work months.

This morning we were out at Spring Valley to trouble-shoot a faulty sensor in AGCI’s iRON long-term research network and to reset a logger box that had lost connection for its cellular transmissions. Something I was never told about long-term research is that if you work with the same field equipment long enough, you start to imagine that your sensors have a personality. Spring Valley, for example, I suspect gets petulant when ignored for too long. The station there likes a little visit early in every winter. Since the station was installed at Spring Valley in 2016, every December or January the cellular transmission of data from the logger box to the internet stops. Usually when one of my Onset RX3000’s drops signal, it is able to reconnect within a day or so and send the backlog of collected data on its own. However, when the Spring Valley box drops signal in winter, it fails to reconnect automatically. I’ve learned from experience that a quick power reset fixes the problem, and the box will carry on with its transmissions trouble-free for roughly another year. Because it is one of our more easily accessed stations, I don’t mind an annual winter trip to Spring Valley. I have come to look forward to it.

vole footprints in snow
Tracks show that a small rodent has been active here:
Feb, 2020.

Seeing your site at other times of the year than your typical field season offers insight into the seasonal cycles and a different perspective than that provided solely by automated data collection. How deep is the snow, and whose tracks do we find? Are there deer lingering nearby? What is the snowpack so far this year? Is there ice in the logger box? (Thankfully, no!)

Ideally, a researcher might live in the place they study day-in and day-out. But when that is not possible, the next best thing is a forced visit during the field off-season.