U-Idaho Project to Monitor Wilderness Ecosystem as it ‘Breathes’

Monday, December 10 2012


By Jill Maxwell

TAYLOR WILDERNESS RANCH RESEARCH STATION, Idaho – Trudging up a steep mountainside to dig holes in rocky soil doesn’t seem like professorial work. But for Katy Kavanagh and Tim Link – faculty members in the University of Idaho Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences Department – it was all in a recent weekend’s work.

Mundane as the task may seem, the holes have a higher purpose. They’ll house soil moisture sensors within a complex 3D network installed to collect crucial information on Idaho’s changing ecosystems. All are within the heart of the more than 2 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in central Idaho.

The new Mountainous Ecosystem Sensor Array, or MESA, will serve for the next five years as the ears and eyes on the environment by monitoring conditions and sending streams of real-time data to U-Idaho researchers. Results will be posted to a website accessible to the public.

“The network will be able to monitor the ecosystem as it breathes,” says Kavanagh.

MESA was designed and constructed over the past year by electrical engineering graduate students Derek Neal and Doug Frome and technician Paul Robinson, under the guidance of Herb Hess, a faculty member in the College of Engineering.

Three data collection stations have been installed at as many elevations: one each at approximately 6,000 feet, 5,000 feet and 3,000 feet. Each station encompasses a suite of sensors – spread out between a main tree and two peripheral trees – to constantly collect data on relative humidity; air temperature; radiation; leaf wetness; soil moisture; wind speed and direction; tree growth; and carbon dioxide levels.

The information will be used to forecast potential impacts of climate change. Climate researchers predict that as climates change, vegetation now growing at 3,000 feet may decades into the future be flourishing at 5,000-foot elevations.

“So, by looking at the elevation gradients, we can get a picture of the future,” Kavanagh says.

Each monitoring site is outfitted with state-of- the- art radio transmitters, antennas, sensors and batteries. All are powered by a solar panel and a wind turbine -- also mounted in the trees. Data will be collected at several points in the canopy – above it, midway and at the canopy’s base; and at different distances from the host trees, under the trees, at the canopy’s edge and out in the open.

“This project is on the cutting edge of some great stuff,” says Robinson. “Radios have become small and powerful enough, the power requirements low enough and the batteries small enough that radios are starting to be practical in places like this.”

Kavanagh and Link are trying to capture a picture of the relationships between different environmental variants as they occur. For example, the soil moisture holes they dug are below snow-depth sensors.

“As the snow level decreases, theoretically soil moisture should decrease, says Link.

It’s all part of what’s called a mesh network, which means that it’s “self-healing.” So if a sensor at one of the respective locations dies, the others will establish alternate connectivity to communicate with each other.

The research station’s out-of-the-way location makes it ideal for this kind of study, says Kavanagh. It’s free of human impact, has no heat islands and isn’t exposed to vehicle exhaust.

A National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Development Grant funds the MESA project. Co-investigators include: Alistair Smith, assistant professor of forest measurements; Beth Newingham, assistant professor in restoration ecology; Anthony Davis, assistant professor of native plant regeneration and silviculture; Paul Gessler professor and co-director of the Geospatial Laboratory for Environmental Dynamics; and Zach Holden with the U.S. Forest Service.
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