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Rough Science 4 Death Valley: Ellen McCallie's diary: Rover

Updated Tuesday, 29th August 2006

As one of the driest places on Earth, how will Ellen's botanical skills serve her in the quest to find water in the Death Valley desert?

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Ellen collects water from the desert plants Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Day 1

So what was Rough Science 4 day one like? It started with a gathering call for 5:30am, helicopter training, and the trip to Darwin Mine, our base for the new series.

Darwin Mine is 30 miles from Lone Pine, where we are staying. The land and vegetation change dramatically. Yes, lots of creosote bush in fruit, but the plants get smaller as we go higher. Then tall Joshua trees spring up—Don Quixotes on the land. We are no longer in the lush Owens Valley. The town of Darwin has no facilities open to the public and is several miles from the main road, a dead end of sorts, though tracks head off into the mountains. Small towns around here seem to be collections of past hopes—trailers, cars, stuff, lots of stuff that just doesn’t rot or rust here. No longer like your dwelling? Get a new one and place it by the old one. Do this enough and your yard is filled with your past, as well as the histories of those who came before you.

Challenge: Iain and I are to find water in one of the driest places on Earth. Kathy and Mike are to purify it so that it is drinkable—and someone is going to drink it. Jonathan is on his own to build a rover.

First, our home base, Darwin Mine, is fabulous. It is completely decked out with tools and electricity, which after Rough Science 2 on the island of Carriacou, I’ll never take for granted again. The only thing I don’t see is an oven or stove that is not wood-fed. It looks like we’ll be spending time collecting wood, chopping wood, feeding the fire, monitoring the fire, and getting hot for yet another season. It is quite grounding. Fire-making still dominates the lives of many women around the world…

Hey, it’s great to have Iain, the geologist, as well. There will be two of us wandering all over the place now. Geology, like botany/biology, can’t be done indoors. That’s one of the things I love about what I do. In the past, this has meant I’ve unintentionally hogged a camera and sound team every time I’ve needed to go find something. Hopefully, Iain and I can coordinate our efforts—it will be easier on everyone.

More specifically, I haven’t laughed this hard in ages. Iain’s dry humor is right up my alley. Plus, his stories about his family (spouse and two girls) are so loving and delightful. On occasion he just breaks in to song—children’s songs that I haven’t thought of in ages.

Finding water around here is going to be a bit tough, which is probably the point.

Day 2

Yesterday evening, I was almost out of control I because I was so happy. This is a fantastic team. We laugh hard, play hard, and even dance—merengue and some salsa. Plus, we’re all into science and being outdoors. This team has a fun-loving, fabulous spirit.

Finding water, on the other hand, isn’t proving so easy. Iain and I wandered high and low, finding old traces of running water in the landscape, particularly in rock. None of these will help us right now, however.

Plus, the whole deal about cutting open cacti isn’t really accurate. They hold water if it has rained recently, but if it hasn’t, they are moist, but it isn’t appealing to smell or even enough to drink.

Driven by necessity, Iain and I set up two methods to collect water: a solar still and transpiration bags on trees.

We found an oasis of sorts—a place where the geology makes it so that water in the soil or near the surface is channeled into a narrow area. There are plants here that require more water than typical desert plants. We dig for water—it should only be a meter or so down based on the types of plants in the area, at least that’s what the research says. We keep hitting drier and drier soil, so we stop. The top 18 inches of soil seem damp, so we set up a solar still. I also bag several branches of trees to collect transpired water. This is a long shot but even a tablespoon of water would be helpful at this point.

Day 3

I couldn’t believe it when we returned to the “oasis” today—the solar still did okay, while the transpiration bags on the tree accumulated over a cup of water. I literally couldn’t believe it. Sure, I’ve put plastic bags over green leaves on trees and plants in Missouri and in the Amazon to collect water and to demonstrate transpiration, but I never imagined a plant living in this dry environment would release so much water. On the other hand, it must open its stomata in order to let carbon dioxide in for photosynthesis—that’s when the water vapour escapes. Try this at home!

Iain finds lots of water in a spring by an old dry lake. But it’s very salty.

Mike and Kathy did a great job trying to purify the water we give them, but they just don’t have enough time to perfect the system. Turns out the transpiration water is salty. I'll bet that’s because it ran down the leaves and branches of the tree where dust and salt have accumulated. I’ll have to investigate this further. But they do successfully purify the solar still water…





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