An impromptu sampling trip at Lago di Maggiore …

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Sampling diatoms from Lago di Maggiore.  Nigel Willby (left) and Sebastian Birk and, in the foreground, the sample collected in a plastic cup with a disposable toothbrush.

One of the inevitable quirks of the high-level overview of Europe’s ecology that intercalibration provided was that we spent most of our time staring at spreadsheets and relatively little time out in the field. The irony struck me as Lago di Maggiore came into view on the drive from the airport to JRC’s campus at Ispra: I’ve been here several times, always to discuss intercalibration, but I’ve never actually taken a sample from this huge lake right on JRC’s doorstep.

There was, however, a problem to overcome: I had travelled light so had nothing with which to collect or store a sample. Last night I had been given an emergency pack of toiletries by KLM, which included a toothbrush, but I had blithely discarded this. I did wonder if my own toothbrush could be pressed into service but there, waiting in my otherwise basically-equipped room at the Europa Hotel, was a toothbrush. What better sign did I need that this sampling trip was Meant To Happen?

In the gap between the end of the meeting and dinner, I pressed two colleagues who had the forethought to bring swimming trunks into service to collect stones from the littoral zone just in front of the hotel. Each had a thin slimy layer on the surface (the stones, not Nigel and Sebastian). I brushed this into a plastic cup, again filched from the hotel room, then left this on a shelf in the bathroom whilst we went to dinner so that the algae would settle at the bottom. When I got back, I poured off most of the overlying water and decanted the brown sludge at the bottom into a shampoo bottle which I had rinsed out thoroughly. A shot of grappa could have been pressed into service as a temporary preservative, but I did not think of that until it was too late.

The only obstacle that remains is airport security. I’ll have to hope that no-one questions this strange brown “shampoo” in my luggage and that, if forced to admit it is diatoms, the security staff don’t recall that fossil diatoms are a constituent of the soft, sedimentary rock “kieselguhr”, and, more particularly, that no-one ever told them that kieselguhr is one ingredient of TNT.

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