Thursday, July 8, 2010

SciMuse: Jim Holmquist, of Peat Bogs and Ukuleles


My second SciMuse interview subject is Jim Holmquist, who is a paleoecologist by day and the fearless leader of The Long Holidays by night.


So tell me a little about the science you do by day.

I'm a second year graduate student at UCLA in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I use peat cores from areas adjacent to the Hudson Bay in Canada to reconstruct climate and ecology from macro and micro fossils. I then compare those reconstructions to the rates of Carbon accumulation in the cores. Essentially we're looking for how they reacted to past drought and patterns in warming to understand how they may react to future climate change.

What is a peat core and does it contain fossils? How do you get them?

So a peat core is a continuous sample from the top to the bottom of the soil. It's shaped like a cylinder and gets older as it gets deeper. We have special tools that are like metal cylinders with a flap and a trap door that you can shove into the ground, twist and pull up an intact core.


Here's a picture of a tool used to collect peat cores. Jim drops these from helicopters into the soil of peatlands in the Canadian Hudson Bay!

The reason that we gather them is because peatlands store a lot of carbon in their soils in the form of poorly decayed plant material. This is carbon that is currently not in the atmosphere causing greenhouse warming. However if the climate gets dry and warmer in the future a lot of this soil can decay and put more C back into the atmosphere. Alternatively soil warming can possibly cause increased plant growth and peat formation causing increased C storage in the soil.

The cores contain a record of the rates of C storage and a fossil record of the plants that form the soil. So they do have fossils in them from the recent past... recent meaning as old as about 10,000 years ago.

There are macro-fossils, large pieces of mosses, leaves and wood and micro-fossils, such as microscopic animals called amoeba, and pollen grains. I pretty much go down the core, meaning back in time over the last few thousand years, and look for large changes in the macro-fossil record which could indicate a major change in vegetation.

I also use testate-amoeba's, a microscopic animal that is very sensitive to moisture, to calculate past surface moisture with complex mathematical functions. Overall these two records tell me when there was past climate change in the area. I look at how past climate change has affected the rates of past C storage to see if they were increased or reduced under different climate scenarios.

A picture of a testate-amoeba.

So how'd you get into this stuff?

Originally I was interested in marine biology because I liked snorkeling, scuba diving and surfing as a kid. I was really into nature docs and aquariums. In college I got involved in a multidisciplinary research project that involved wetland ecology, chemistry and environmental science. Me and my mentor tracked metal pollution in Los Angeles wetlands using plant tissues. After that I really like the idea of learning more about wetland ecology, especially paleoecology and Glen's work at UCLA was a great fit.

How long have you been playing music?

I've been playing music since 2000 where I started on guitar. My brother, me and two of our friends started a surf rock band called Caution Heavy Surf and we made two albums "Caution Heavy Surf's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1" and "Oh Yeah! Another Summer."

After I started college at Loyola Marymount I learned how to play ukulele and started a new band "The Long Holidays". We're a bit more eclectic in our influences span the gamete from country to folk to rock and a little bit of surf and uke.

Jim, ukulele in hand, captivating a dog.

How do you find balance between science and music?

The music kind of helps keep me sane through all of the grad school craziness. I'm always trying to learn new instruments so I'm always challenged. Plus, songwriting and performing can be very cathartic.

I think my science helps get me some really cool songwriting perspective. Many of my songs are nautical themed and inspired by my adventures scuba diving. "30ft beneath the waves", from our newest record "The Adventure Through Liquid Space", is actually a description of night diving. I write a lot of ecology into my songs, such as "Suburban Coyote" I use the setting of the regular burning california chaparral as a metaphor for change in life being part of a natural and cyclical progression. In Growing Gills I talk about sedimentary rocks and oil forming at the bottom of the ocean as a metaphor for a relationship becoming less real as it becomes more distant.

These are a couple of examples but these type of themes make there way into a good number of my songs.

I found this on your website: "According to Sean our fan base should be… “goofballs and smart-asses, who like nautical shit and old sci-fi movies” (I paraphrase)." Is this a conscious decision you made when forming the band? Or is it something that naturally extends out of your personality?

In terms of our fan base, the goofballs and smartasses are pretty much just our extended group of friends. I'm trying to reach out to like-minded people on the internet who we think would be fans of the music. Your article may actually be a pretty good outlet for this.

There is a fair bit of smart-assery at the shows, partially because the fans are mostly our friends who like to heckle me (I heckle back of course). We're also pretty loose on stage and I improvise new lyrics and jokes into the songs that we've been playing forever.

What's the lineup of the Long Holidays and how did you put together your self-produced record,"The Adventure Through Liquid Space"?

I put the record together with Kevin who's my main collaborator, but doesn't play live very much. He played drums and piano on most of the songs. Sean and I have been playing together ever since we were roommates in college together, but it took him a while to actually start playing with the band. He plays acoustic guitar on the record and presently in the band. The
record also has contributions from my friend Rob Farley (who has great solo work) and members from my old band Caution Heavy Surf.

For the record premiere I put together a completely fresh line-up to give the songs a completely new sound. Gabriel de'Santana plays drums. He's a real pro, and he always wears suits... makes us look bad. Andy Worshill plays bass and trombone and he always encourages me to be crazier and stranger on stage... bad influence. They were both friends of friends who I jammed with a couple of times and really meshed with.

The whole fluid nature of the band and the music works really well with our theme and image as "Adventure Rockers". We always want to be adventurous, try new things and never be totally sure what's going to happen when we get on stage. Adventure as a theme permeates, not only the lyrics and music, but also the process and presentation.

Thanks so much to Jim for doing this interview. You can check his band out on myspace.

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