Or: Why you should do fieldwork

By Tanja

Just under a week ago I came back from a two-week long fieldwork in the bush area of Western Australia. Not sure if that area really counts as the outback as the nearest town (Esperance) was ~300 km from where we were and we were around ~800 km from Perth… I know it can get way more isolated up in the Kimberleys apparently. So anyways… before I tell you a few short stories about interesting things that happened let me tell you something about this fieldwork itself and why we went there and back again.

In seismology we collect our data by downloading a bunch of seismograms and then processing them in some way – which varies depending on what you need to extract from them. In order to have seismograms you need seismometers that will record earthquakes from around the world. There are plenty of these distributed around the globe and data is readily available.

Figure 1: Project area and the array in question. On this particular trip we serviced/installed all the stations shown in either half-red or full-red symbols.
Courtesy of Christian Sippl.

But sometimes you maybe want to study a specific region or a particular structure within the region – this is when you need a seismic array (usually in some shape – elongated, circular, L-shaped, spiral…). There are a lot of global arrays (one of the most popular being the moving USArray) but sometimes you don’t have arrays where you need them. And that is when you have to physically install them. One such array has been installed around ~2013 in remote regions between Esperance and Kalgoorlie in WA (Figure 1). Since then those stations needed to be serviced and occasionally more needed to be added to the array.

On this particular fieldwork I was in the role of a little (literally) helper – my job was mostly to service the already existing stations, but I was also shown how to install them. This involves fun cardio activity that is sure to get you out of the gym, out into the sun to around 40 degrees where you then dig ~1.5 m deep holes.

In the gravel!

Sand if you’re lucky.

Being already involved with a gym and several different cardio activities I had to pass on this brilliant opportunity and was required to service the stations (Figure 2) only.

Figure 2: Recorder of seismic data. The big, black, enclosed, bulky thing is the battery. Plugged into the recorder are seismometer (buried in the ground) and a GPS antenna.
Courtesy of Christian Sippl.

This means I have to change the battery in the seismic recorder, to assure it keeps running. I have to collect the data from the recorder – in the form of an SD card, check them on the spot and make sure they are recorded correctly (for example, you can observe an earthquake on them, no components are acting strangely and are active and such) and then close the station, hide it – wrap it into green tarp and cover it in branches so the animals won’t chew on it (Figure 3) and lost humans wouldn’t mistake it for a water cooler. Then you move to the next station.

This whole service usually takes around ~15 mins in total. If something is wrong with the data you have to additionally change the entire recorder. Recorders weigh around ~12-15 kg (I think, at least that’s how it felt) and carrying them back and forth through thick bush is another brilliant cardio activity.

So anyways – that is what I have been doing for the two weeks of my stay in WA. A lot of driving on 4WD tracks (think bumps, holes, sand, fallen trees, salt lakes), traipsing through the bush with a heavy recorder (but I had a helper of my own! I will get to that shortly), trying to find the hidden station by means of a precise GPS, servicing the station, checking the data, potentially changing the recorder, traipsing through the bush back to the car and then some more driving.

It was mostly driving.

Figure 3: What happens when animals (cows in this case) investigate you recorder – the tarp is scattered in the background and the cables are chewed through. This is why you need to properly hide the recorders and wrap them snugly in a tarp.
Courtesy of Christian Sippl

In the car with me was a member of our project partners called Umar. Umar is the greatest. There I said it – let’s move on now. He was the one who hauled this heavy recorder through the bush while I was carefully stepping and navigating in front of him with my GPS trying to find the station. Thanks to him and his sense of humor I had an excellent time and every time I found something hilarious – so did he. This resulted in a lot of laughs and giggles.

Let me share some of the stuff that happened in the remote areas of WA. I will try in chronological order, but what happened on which day exactly is a bit of a blur – I mean when camping in the bush (mostly) you wake up with the sun (around 6 a.m. if you have trees above you) and go to your swag around 8 p.m.

9 p.m. if you feel very lively.

Days soon become one long stretch.

So … if you are up for a daily account of my adventures in WA, you can find it here.