For the past few days I have been testing an infrared camera for a study on temperature variation across environments. My assistant and I have been carrying approximately fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of non-waterproof equipment into the mountains to make some preliminary analyses. This gets interesting when the sun disappears, then wind picks up, the view across the valley changes quickly from blue sky to heavy dark clouds, and thunder echoes among the peaks.
It’s hard to know what to do in these scenarios. Taking instruments up a peak requires extensive preparation and hard physical work, and it is a waste to give up and go home too early. But tarrying too long means the risk of heavy rain, or worse – a lightning strike.
Sometimes a storm passes easily, leaving blue skies behind.
But other times, clouds descend, and the storm is everywhere.
Today I decided the risk wasn’t worth it, so we hastily packed our gear and rushed down the slope away from the storm, accompanied by the sounds of thunder. As we reached home, the sky cleared and then the storm was gone. We gambled – and lost – and then went back to work in the sun.
I don’t know if one can ever know perfectly when to go, and when to stay. But we probably still made the safe decision. The risk on any one day is low, but the cumulative risk over hundreds or thousands of days in the field is high. Better to live to do science another day!