Stuck Between a Hand Drill and a Hard Place

by Riley Steinbrenner
It’s hard to believe it’s already been almost two weeks since I arrived at Trout Lake Station!
After battling the big waves of Johnson Lake with Susan and Adam, I realized I never formally introduced myself. So…
Hi there! My name is Riley and I am a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Life Sciences Communication with a certificate in Environmental Studies. At the UW, I am a photo editor and occasional science writer for The Badger Herald. This summer, I’ll be working on station as the science communication intern – photographing and writing about some of the world-class research going on here up north in Boulder Junction!

No ocean here!

Being a Navy brat, I was raised by two Badger alumni in a land far, far away known as the east coast—Virginia Beach to be exact. Having lived thirty minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, I’ve always had an interest in aquatic ecology, and when my sisters and I weren’t catching sunrays on the beach we were spotting stingrays at the Virginia Aquarium (VAQ). It was volunteering at the VAQ as a junior docent in high school where I found interest in communicating science to non-scientists, particularly about marine ecology.
Since coming to Trout Lake and talking with fellow undergraduates and graduate students, it’s been awesome getting to know everyone and listening to them talk about their research. Everyone is so passionate about what they’re doing—even if it is in the middle of nowhere! One of those researchers is geological engineering PhD student Dom Ciruzzi.
Patrick Dowd (left) and Dom Ciruzzi (right). Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

Earlier this week, I ran into Dom and his research partner Patrick Dowd, a recent civil engineering graduate, in the main lab. Affixed on the floor surrounded by an entanglement of multi-colored electrical wires and off-white boxes containing what I assumed to be data collectors of some sort, Dom explained he and Patrick were heading out to “the forest” to attach these boxes with electrical wires flooding out of them to some trees.
Very vague. I was intrigued.
Since my roommate had just found a pin-sized tick on her earlier that day, I went back to my cabin to change into some pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. I met Dom and Patrick back at their truck. “Nooow,” Dom said, “this could take four minutes or four hours. Do you want to ride with us or follow behind us in another car?”
I chose the latter, but only because I downed a whole bottle of water before heading out and was certain “the forest” didn’t have any accommodations, if you know what I mean.
It turned out that “the forest” is just to the west of Coon’s Franklin Lodge right off WI-51, so not far from our station. I parked and got out of the car to watch Dom and Patrick hoist the boxes out of the trunk using the ends of their sleeves to shield their palms. “Huh, that’s weird,” I thought.
“Why are you carrying them like that?” I asked.
Dom looked down at the box and nonchalantly answered, “Oh, this’ll kill you.”
“What?!” I exclaimed—perhaps too loudly.
Seeing my bewildered look, Dom clarified, “The boxes are made of fiberglass, so it can irritate your skin really badly.”
“Ok cool. I won’t be touching those,” I thought. After consulting with Patrick, he assigned me a non-fiberglass box to stow.
And so the adventure began. We lugged our boxed into “the forest” hobbling mysteriously but swiftly like sasquatches carrying an oversized to-go lunch .
Through whiplashing trees branches and snarly underbrush, we seemed to be haphazardly following the blaze-orange ribbons hugging trees trunks in a zigzagging line as far as the eye could see.
Almost like he read my mind, Dom shouted over his shoulder, “Yeah, there used to be more clearly marked paths here, but over time they kind of just…mingled together. That’s what these ribbons are for.”
“Don’t worry,” Patrick said, walking ahead of me past the mossed-over stumps, nearly uprooted trees and protruding rocks, “Dom’s gone through here plenty of times over the past two years.”
After several minutes of playing “follow the leader” we arrived at a tree with two poles protruding from the ground in front of it.
Dom pointing out the pole which protects the wires monitoring soil-moisture. The other pole (front) measures groundwater level. Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

One of these poles protects sensors that measure soil moisture, and the other pole measures the level of groundwater below the tree. Groundwater is a key player in Dom’s research project which aims to understand whether trees in wet environments—in this case, Northern Wisconsin—use groundwater during dry periods.
“It’s been known that trees in [drought-prone] places such as New Mexico and Australia utilize groundwater,” he said. “But this is not known in wet environments.” In these wet environments, trees utilize rainwater to sustain themselves.
Dom hypothesizes, however, that during periods of drought—when there is no rainfall—wet-environment trees will also tap into the water supply stored below them.
So how does one go about testing if these trees use groundwater as a means to cope with drought?
By bending them.
More specifically, Dom plans to “bend” four trees this summer using a rope and pulley system. Picture it like swinging a giant jump rope over the tree and settling the middle part against the tree trunk, pulling one end of the rope towards you and seeing how much of the rope shortens as the tree bends.
Two of his study trees are in an area just inside “the forest” with deep groundwater, about 15 feet below the surface. Two more are deeper into “the forest” with shallower groundwater, about 5 feet below the surface.
In order to test whether these trees utilize the groundwater in these two areas, Dom will “create a drought” by tarping the area around one of the two trees in each spot—the experimental tree—like a massive Christmas tree skirt.
Dom explained that the more water a tree holds, the more rigid it is. The less water it holds, the less rigid it is, making the tree trunk easier to bend.
“Think of it like a wilted flower,” he said.
Therefore, the more “bendy” a tree is, the more water-stressed it is—a sign that groundwater has not been used by a tree, otherwise it would be rigid from all the water inside.
Dom predicts that the trees in the deep-groundwater area will signal similar bendiness, and that the trees in the shallow-groundwater area will signal divergent bendiness. This is because the more shallow the groundwater, the more a tree’s roots are able to reach the groundwater during periods of drought.
“It looks so big and so unmovable,” Dom gawked at the first deep-groundwater tree, as if it were his first time processing what he was about to do over the next several months.
The tree’s “Fitbit” aka an accelerometer attached to its trunk. Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

“What’s that?” I said, pointing up at little box pressed against the tree trunk by a Velcro belt.
“That’s the accelerometer,” he said. “It measures motion of the tree, like a Fitbit.” 
The motion of the tree will be measured by its “sway period,” Dom explained, or the time it takes for the tree to sway from one side to the next and back. He hopes this data will help him relate the bendiness and water-stress of trees.
Dom and Patrick also plan on collecting and analyzing some leaves from their study trees. The amount of water found in the leaves will also indicate the severity of water-stress.
All these factors, from groundwater movement to soil moisture to tree movement, make up measurements of bending, in addition to how much the rope shortens when Dom actually bends the trees using the pulley system about five to six times this summer.
There was, however, one more measuring device to hang on the tree—that’s where the mysterious fiberglass boxes come in.
The sap-temperature data collector (top) and battery (below) in a weather-resistant fiberglass box. Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

Turns out they contain a data collector powered by a battery. Dom attached a wire with three prongs attached to one end of it to each data collector. When inserted into the tree, the middle prong heats the sap flowing up inside the trunk. The two outer prongs measure the temperature of the sap, one measuring it before it is heated and the other measuring it after it is heated. The data collector inside the box will record these temperatures, and enable Dom to calculate the velocity of sap flow in each tree.
The prongs that measure temperature of sap flow. Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

Without hesitation, Dom and Patrick started wrapping a bungee cord around the first tree to hold a little metal in place on the bark at eye-level. Upon further inspection, I saw three little, aligned holes about a millimeter in diameter punched into the metal piece—a guide to drill holes for the prongs.
With the precision of a brain surgeon and the enthusiasm of a child playing Operation, Dom started slowly cranking the first drill bit into the trunk.
“We don’t know exactly how far to drill it, but I just have to make sure it’s balanced,” Dom noted. A crooked drilling would prevent him from being able to properly insert the prongs.
Dom starts drilling holes for the prongs in the first tree. Photo by: Riley Steinbrenner

Having to do this three times on four different trees, I began to understand what he meant by this process taking four minutes to four hours.
Several minutes of cranking, mosquito-swatting and bug spray-coating passed by until – “Oh, crap,” Dom muttered under his breath.
One of the drill bits broke off, but like every prepared researcher, he’d brought a spare.
With a new drill bit, the game of tree Operation continued. If it weren’t for the bug spray, the mosquitos sure would have an easy feast!
“Well, that was quick,” Dom said, a little too soon, since this time, the drill bit—the spare drill bit—got stuck!
By now, it was a little past 6 pm. Still light out but approaching closing time for the nearest hardware store. Dom and Patrick agreed it was best to go ahead a get a power drill for the next go-around—on another day.
Before heading back, though, we dropped off the boxes at the other three trees.
“Welcome to mosquito city!” Dom exclaimed as we arrived at the last two shallow-groundwater trees near a swampy part of “the forest,” probably just as relieved as I was that we didn’t start drilling here.
Once Dom and Patrick are able to get the prongs attached to the trees, they will be able to start monitoring the trees’ “bendiness” before, during and well into their faux-drought.
But first, it was off to Ace Hardware for Dom. And, if there’s a good way to measure someone’s patience, it has to be with a manual hand drill.

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