Mud, Sweat and Tears: PhD fieldwork in Uganda / / by Laura Hunt

Laura Hunt is a PhD student hosted within the ODA programme at the British Geological Survey and the University of Nottingham. This summer she visited Uganda to complete the first fieldwork for her research...

The field team. L - R Dr Matt Jones, Laura, Dr Dave Ryves, Ganja, Richard, Tessa Driessen 

A couple of months back, I was lucky enough to find myself (along with 7 cases of field equipment) on the way to Uganda, ready for the first fieldwork trip of my PhD. Two plane rides and a day of driving later we arrived at my field sites; a group of > 80 crater lakes formed in association with the East African Rift Valley, located in the very west of Uganda.

My PhD research, for which I am hosted at BGS through the BUFI scheme, aims to understand how past environmental change has influenced the hydrology and water balance of these lakes, with the longer term goal of using this knowledge to project their response to future change. The crater lakes are important water resources for rural communities in this region of Uganda, so we hope that this work will help inform sustainable future management of the lakes.

Setting off for limnological surveying and sampling on Lake Kamunzuka

A lack of long term monitoring of the lakes means that we turn to the field of palaeolimnology in order to do this. This, in short, involves taking sediment cores from the bottom the lakes, and interpreting how the lake environment has changed over time from a number of clues – ‘proxies’- preserved in the lake sediments that have built up over time, which can include pollen, diatoms, macrofossils, and pigments. My work will look at the isotope composition of carbonates preserved in the lake cores, which will be analysed in the NIGF laboratory based at the Keyworth site.

While in Uganda, our main mission was to take sediment cores from five of the crater lakes – the time machines that will enable us to understand these lakes’ past. I am pleased to say we were successful in doing so – although I would like to put it on the record that sediment coring from the confines of a small inflatable boat is somewhat challenging, especially when attempting to core a lake that is 40 m deep! We also collected observational data and water samples from even more lakes across the region, which we will compare to a very similar dataset, complied by my BGS supervisor, Dr Keely Mills, during her PhD, to investigate how the lakes have responded to environmental pressures over the last decade.

The first sediment core collected on the trip, and of my PhD,
from Lake Kyasanduka

Undertaking fieldwork in Uganda certainly posed a number of challenges (our vehicle needing to be dug out of a muddy road and hippos swimming around in a lake we needed to sample
 to name a few), however it was definitely the most amazing place I’ve ever been on fieldwork. It is not every day that you spot wild elephants out the car window on the way back from a long day of sampling, or need to chase colobus monkeys away from stealing your limnology equipment!

I’d like to say thank you to the incredible bunch of people that I was able to work with in Uganda: Matt my supervisor for doing the heavy coring, Dave and Tessa from Loughborough University, Richard our invaluable driver and to Andrew, Ganja and Francis for helping us out in the field. A huge thank you also is due to the countless locals that welcomed us to their lakes and helped us along the way by fetching and carrying our equipment, and providing valuable accounts of the lakes and their histories.