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.

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