Unearthing Adventures

Nate Looker was on his way to his research station in the cloud forest above Guatemala City when the rainy season arrived early. The excess rains washed away the road forcing the VW pickup carrying Looker and two fellow researchers toward a ravine of mud. Fortunately they saved themselves and the vehicle, but the only road to his data station was left impassable.

Undeterred, Looker, a senior in global resource systems, returned to Guatemala City to remap his research strategy.

Last spring Looker spent the semester studying the ecohydrology of Guatemala. He can talk for hours about the discoveries he made during his internship experience. Along with a rich understanding of the culture and ecosystems, he unearthed a few adventures.

Looker came to Guatemala to measure the water intake of tree species in two different ecosystems in the Sierra de las Minas mountain range. The range stretches 100 miles along southeastern Guatemala and supplies water to 10 percent of the country.

The native Iowan found the mountainous ecosystems fascinating. The mountain ridges support an elfin forest of windblown vegetation averaging three feet tall. The cloud forest, a contradiction in terms, forms just below the mountain ridge. Covered by fog most of the time, the water-rich ecosystem has little sunlight creating stunted vegetation and epiphytic growth, which means many plants, like moss, grow on top of other plants.

“The cloud forest ecosystem, which is rare to begin with, is particularly vulnerable to changes in climate and land use,” Looker says. “It’s important to understand how these changes impact ecosystem services, such as water output.”

The lower elevations support a pine and oak forest, which is where Looker moved his sensors after losing access to the cloud forest. He built 32 sap-flow sensors to monitor the water intake in trees. The research is part of a World Wildlife Foundation project that is monitoring hydrological patterns throughout Mesoamerica.

“The sensor is a device you stab into a tree. It establishes a heat pulse to measure changes in sap flux,” Looker says. “The idea is to understand how water use relates to species and climatic conditions.”

This year Looker was the first Iowa State student to be named both a Udall Scholar and a Goldwater Scholar. The Udall Foundation awards scholarships to students who study environmental and American Indian issues and show promise of making significant contributions through scientific advances, service or community action. Goldwater is the nation’s premier undergraduate scholarship in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering.

Despite setbacks and a shortage of materials for the sensors, Looker described his internship as an awesome experience. He plans to pursue a doctorate in landscape ecology and a career doing research for a university or an international research institution.

He says he’s mesmerized by the forests and pointed out that Guatemala means “the place of trees.” For Looker this adventure included a glimpse of what those trees, ecosystems and mountains mean to Guatemala.

Click here for Looker’s Indian rice pudding recipe