Scientific research in a forest

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the Harvard Forest—the most-studied forest in the world. It's an interesting place, with a complicated history. Originally forest, it was clear-cut in the decades following European settlement. By 1830, less than 90% of this part of Massachusetts had any forest left. But that trend had already begun to reverse itself by 1850, spurred by urbanization and cheaper, more-efficient farming in the "West" (i.e., Ohio).

What is now the Harvard Forest was farmland for many years. Then it was used for tree plantations. Then it became forest again, studied first by Harvard University's forestry program in the early 20th century, and then by ecologists and other environmental scientists beginning in the 1980s. Today, these 3,500 acres are home to dozens of individual studies and long-term, interdisciplinary projects led by scientists from more than 15 universities and institutions.

This particular study, led by Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, is studying the nitrogen and carbon cycles of forests, and how those cycles are affected by rising soil temperatures. They're trying to understand how climate change will affect the growth of wild plants, and how it will affect those plants' ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. I'll get more in-depth on this study later. Right now, I thought that this site offered a really great view of what a research forest looks like—it's a chance to see detail-oriented science and wild nature interacting and overlapping.

Here's a couple more photos that will give you an idea of the kind of things you might find in a research forest.

They include electronics in odd places. This junction box delivers power that runs several sensors driven into the forest floor. Another key feature are various home-built collection systems meant to capture leaves and debris that fall off of trees. These baskets, and what's inside them, can help scientists back-calculate the volume of leaves the trees in this area grow in a given year.

Also common in a research forest: Lots and lots of signage and color-coded tags. In order for science to happen, you have to know exactly what you're looking at. When you make comparisons at the same spot over time, you have to know you're dealing with the same plants, or the same section of the woods. Signs help. You can't see it here, but the trees, themselves, are also labeled. In this particular study, every tree has a number that it wears tacked to its trunk like a little dog tag.


  1. When we were living in Heidelberg, Germany we were curious about the fact that the trees in the urban forest near our apartment had numbers on them.  We would also come across man-hole covers in the oddest places in the woods. Aside from those quirky things, when you were in the woods you felt like you were deep in the wilderness.

    We found out later that much of the steam-heat system for our part of town ran through pipes under the forest floor, and that the trees were all cataloged, so that the small amount of logging that was allowed could be very carefully managed.  I was so impressed and gratified to have those beautiful woods so close to our densely populated neighborhood.  I didn’t realize that we had a research forest in the U.S.!

    1. There are hundreds of research forests in the US.  Many are associated with the Land Grant universities (which, if you parse the name, should give you an indication of their original purpose – Give the institutions land in which they can perform research), and there are many private-public partnership research forests associated with large forestry companies and universities, trying to improve tree genetics, harvesting techniques, understand ecological connections.  The NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network) and LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) networks are a huge governmental/university research push towards understanding some of the trickier questions in ecology.  Many of these research plots are right under your noses, but not well advertised as to avoid some of the random vandalism (or misguided “ecowarrior” vandalism) that plagues research.

  2. interesting, though I dispute that it’s the most studied forest in the world.  What criteria are you using to make that claim?  There are many other woodlands that have been studied for longer, for example Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire.

  3. Ah, the study of Cultural Geography at it’s finest!   Trying to understand the what, how, and why of human interaction with the landscape and the results is such a fascinating topic for me.

  4. Personally, I think helping the public understand that not all flagging is incipient vandalism or development is a great thing.

    I know that in forests where I’ve worked, scientific labels stay up for a very short time, because other people who use the forests vandalize the tags as quickly as they see them.  I don’t know whether they’re following in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (take up the stakes to stop development), protesting against science in general, or just see the things as eyesores, but there are a number of places where scientific research is difficult to impossible, due to the public reaction to any labels at all.

  5. I am having trouble parsing this portion: “By 1830, less than 90% of this part of Massachusetts had any forest left. But that trend had already begun to reverse itself by 1850, spurred by urbanization and cheaper, more-efficient farming in the “West” (i.e., Ohio).” Could I read that as, “By 1830, 89% of this part of Massachusetts had forest left”? 

    I think you mean, “By 1830, this part of Massachusetts was more than 90% deforested.” Which sounds right, and works better with “reverse itself,” in the next sentence.

    I grew up in Massachusetts, out in the sticks (Spencer, MA, holla–no, actually, please don’t). We would play in the woods endlessly and every so often you would just cross some stone wall in the middle of nowhere. Farmers really hated those stones.

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