A couple of hours outside of the city of Cuenca, the truck begins to ascend the western cordillera of the central Ecuadorian Andes. As we gain elevation and leave the bustle of the inter-Andean Valley behind, the terrain gradually transforms to the soft, open landscape of the high altitude grasslands known as the páramo. Though dominating the mountain ridges in the Mazar Wildlife Reserve, the lower boundary of the greenish-gold paja grass is clearly defined by dark green swaths of native cloud forest and planted pine trees that occasionally creep higher into the feathery grass. After another two hours of driving, we load the bulk of our equipment and food for a month onto two horses then make the final leg of the journey: a short, twenty-minute hike to camp. There, I take in my remote home and office: a series of small grass huts with no electricity or potable water and fields of grass waving hello with the wind. All I can say is, I love my job!
Páramos support valuable ecosystem services throughout the Andes. The combination of grassland cover and volcanic ash soils allow these systems to store and slowly release large quantities of water that serve as the primary sources of drinking water for more than ten million Ecuadorians. Additionally, páramos are significant regional carbon sinks. A better understanding of soil and water processes in páramos is therefore critical to predicting the future of these ecosystem services as these sensitive landscapes respond to change. Despite decades of research in the páramo, our understanding of these unique systems remains limited, in part due to the challenges of working in such remote areas. Only occurring at high elevations (between 3,200 m and 4,500 m) and characterized by a consistently cool and very wet climate, the páramo is often difficult to access and presents new challenges to established field methods.
It is interesting that the same cool, wet conditions that promote the ecosystem services provided by páramos also pose some of the key challenges to working in these beautiful grasslands. This is especially true where power-reliant equipment is required for data collection. Armed with a portable carbon dioxide gas analyzer and three specialized batteries, usually good for two days of field work, I set out to begin data collection. It is evident on the first day, however, that the cool temperatures have reduced each battery to only one day of data collection…if I hurry! My work quickly becomes a sprint between sites on steep mountain slopes as I race against the threat of dying batteries. Field season bonus: that (half) marathon I’ve been training for will be a breeze.
The characteristically wet conditions of the páramo present a whole other suite of challenges. For instance, the portable gas analyzer that is my constant companion is designed to operate in damp, rainy conditions; however, the laptop required to operate it is not. Although this is technically the dry season, “dry” here seems only to mean it doesn’t rain every day. Thus, field work becomes an ever more creative ballet that requires not only speed, but also the grace and agility to maneuver equipment under the cover of a heavy poncho. The result, however, is probably more akin to watching a very large, living brown blob moving awkwardly through the tall grass. And while the laptop stays dry, my clothes are mysteriously soaked at the end of the day.
In spite of running up steep slopes, dodging rain, and arguing with power sources in grass huts with no electricity, we have data! Data that will provide insight into the relationship between water and carbon fluxes in the central Ecuadorian páramo. Data that will, hopefully, contribute not only to our understanding of these unique ecosystems, but will also better inform decision-making processes that affect the sustainability of the ecosystem services they provide. This professional outcome alone makes the travel, planning, and work more than worthwhile. But the real bonus of remote field work is the personal experience that is infinitely enriched by the daily life and challenges of living here. Without the four days of persistent cold rain that proceeded the past two days of clear skies, I would not have the abundant appreciation for the sunshine warming my face and drying my socks. Nor would I have the privilege of witnessing the spectacular upwelling of hot air masses from the Amazon Basin, readying to move west to where I sit in camp as a new wave of cloud and rain. And each time the rain comes, I watch it flow in small streams that will later come together to form the rivers flowing to Cuenca and to the Amazon. I think of the water running from taps in Cuenca and the carbon-carrying sediment making its way to the Pacific Ocean through the Amazonian rivers. In these moments, the professional and personal experiences of remote field work come together and form an image of interconnectedness. An image that demonstrates how a proportionately small ecosystem, like the páramo, tucked away on distant mountaintops, can have such a significant influence on life hundreds of miles away in the valleys and the jungles.