Murphy’s Law

In early March this year I helped Dr. Marta Yebra from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) with her research project, remote sensing of fuel properties in the wildland urban interface, at Black Mountain and Mulligans Flats. The study of fuel properties is important for fire management to understand and predict fire behaviour.


On the first day, I worked with Dr. Yebra at Black Mountain sampling vegetation such as grass on the ground to leaves in the tree.  To sample the fresh leaves, we had to prune branches from trees. This was the most interesting (and dangerous) part of the fieldwork. We threw a rope with a weight attached at the end up to the branch and pulled the line towards the ground. Safety was a significant consideration as extracting one branch might cause other unstable or loose branches to fall. I was instructed to avoid walking under the trees that were being pruned and to always wear a protective helmet. It was important to seal the vegetation samples in plastic bags that were stored in a cool kit to prevent foliage dehydration.



On the following day, I was tasked with laboratory work to weigh the collected samples. Once completed, the samples were transferred from plastic bags into paper bags in preparation for the next phase of the analysis which was heat exposure in an oven that reached temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius for 2-3 days. This process was designed to dehydrate the samples and by weighing the dry samples a comparison of moisture content can be made by calculating the difference between pre-heated samples against heated samples.


Despite the involvement of experienced research scientists and well-planned activities not everything went accordingly. Dr. Yebra informed me that 5 out of 25 plots on Black Mountain was inadvertently burned as part of a bush fire prevention control burn. The ACT Rural Fire Service was aware of the ongoing project however mistook the tree marker tapes for those of control burns. A loss of data resulted from this human error.


From this work experience, I learned to appreciate the labour intensity and time required for sampling and analysis. It is my belief that research projects, especially lengthy and risky projects, should have clear monitoring, controls and contingencies established to ensure research success.

Yiqing He 


About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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One Response to Murphy’s Law

  1. Really interesting blog. I will look out for the results with interest. Cheers, Phil

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