A Path to Fieldwork

From measuring stream discharge in rivers that try and sweep you away downstream, to collecting a year’s worth of data from weather stations at 4700 meters beneath towering glacier covered peaks, fieldwork in physical geography depends upon observations of the natural world.


Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

Now three years into my doctoral studies at OSU, I have traveled to the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian Andes to conduct fieldwork four times. My Ph.D. research aims to understand the changes that are occurring on the surface of debris-covered glaciers (glaciers partially covered in a layer of rocky debris), and their impacts on downstream water quality and quantity in a tropical mountain environment. Debris-covered glaciers are typically situated in a unique position between the debris-free ice above and the meltwater streams below. Studying meltwater chemistry and discharge from debris-covered glaciers in relation to debris-free glaciers allows for a comparison between two water sources in a semi-arid climate. Without conducting fieldwork, obtaining these water samples and observations would be impossible.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

Although my current fieldwork takes place in Peru, I was first exposed to the inner workings of fieldwork in my undergraduate coursework at University of Michigan. During a summer at Camp Davis, in northwest Wyoming, we learned valuable field techniques such as how to core trees and soil, measure river discharge, and assess fish populations, to understand the distribution and function of forests, rivers, and alpine ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains. Following this experience, I was hooked. I realized that I could ask questions of the natural world around me and go out to try and solve them.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

After a few internships, two of which involved different varieties of fieldwork, I turned back to academia. During my Master’s degree at University of Denver, I developed a fieldwork-based project to quantify the river discharge below rock glaciers (glaciers entirely covered in rock) in southwest Colorado. This experience simultaneously drove my passion for fieldwork further, while also opening my eyes to the difficulties that fieldwork can bring.

Photo Credit: Emilio Mateo

While fieldwork may sound like a generally smooth process, it is not without its difficulties. In fieldwork that involves environmental data loggers, there are regularly complications with loss of connections, wires becoming snacks for various critters, and misplacement or theft of the loggers (see our mourning photo on the right). Fieldwork within my project is also physically demanding with long day-hikes or multi-day trips to remote field sites while carrying all of the necessary equipment to complete the work needed to be done.

Another difficulty with fieldwork is that regular trips (annual or sub-annual) to the field sites are typically necessary to observe changes and collect data from the logging devices that stop or re-write data after a year. This is especially relevant in 2020 with the ongoing shutdowns in response to COVID-19, which cut my first fieldwork trip of the year in half and will likely prevent me from returning to Peru for the foreseeable future.

Despite the difficulties that can be associated with fieldwork endeavors, the field, in my case the tropical Andes of Peru, can also be a tranquil experience. The field is always filled with continuous exploration of the surrounding landscape, taking in the spectacular vistas that come with it, and interacting with the people who reside in the region. Being in the field also allows me to reflect upon my research and ask further questions about the environment around me. With my fieldwork being driven by my passion for spending time out in nature and my continuous curiosity of how the natural world works, I eagerly await what my future fieldwork campaigns will bring down the road.


Emilio Mateo

PhD Candidate

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

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