Feature Story

Forests Get Smarter With Sensor Technology

by Anne Field

A network of U.S. forests, linked through IoE technology, will allow researchers to study the state of ecosystems in real time.

Forestry research doesn’t usually come to mind when you think of the Big Apple. But the 635-acre Alley Pond Park in New York City is one of the most recent areas wired to be part of a network of research sites in the U.S. called Smart Forests. Equipped with Internet of Everything (IoE) technology, the aim is to study the state of ecosystems in real-time.  The goal: to use the data to make urban forests and their rural brethren healthier and better able to withstand—and even take advantage of—the effects of climate change.

“We want to understand minute by minute the drivers of our forests’ health,” says Lindsey Rustad, a Durham, N.H., research ecologist with the United States Forest Service, which runs the Smart Forest initiative, and who is based at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. “Smart Forests offers transformational opportunities to better understand the physical, chemical and biological pulse of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” 

See Also: Sensing Earthquakes and Forest Fires

The USFS has been conducting research at forest sites across the country for decades, measuring and monitoring everything from air and soil temperature to solar radiation. But that data has mostly been collected manually.

Now, the USFS is making the most of advances and cost-reductions in sensor technology and wireless communication to change all that. Starting about a year ago, it began building a network of sites that can communicate environmental conditions to not just researchers, but the public, as well. Sensor-based systems get real-time measurements and, combined with traditional field studies and long-term records of patterns and processes, allow researchers to monitor and respond quickly to environmental changes. 

How does it work? The sensors detect and deliver high resolution data wirelessly or through a cellular network to a centralized web portal; there also are webcams for taking pictures. Scientist then analyze the data for research. In addition, they can use data visualization techniques to make the information more accessible to the public.

See Also: The Internet of Everything Meets Water

Different sites will use different sensors, depending on the particular environmental conditions, according to Rustad. One, for example, might have sensors that reach around trees to measure their growth. Another might use web cams and sensors to track the presence and absence of endangered species.

As for Alley Pond, which is the second largest park in Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs, it’s especially important because urban forests can serve as early warning systems for other areas.

The reason: They experience more intense climatic, pollutant and land-use pressures, according to Rich Hallett, a research ecologist who heads the New York City Urban Field Station , which includes Alley Pond. Understanding changes in urban forests may allow researchers to stay ahead of the curve as increased development in exurban locations brings similar pressures to forests in those areas.

Plus, urban forests can provide an important buffer to such events as flooding and water pollution. “Traditionally these forests were largely ignored,” says Hallett. “But now there’s a lot of interest in urban ecosystems and green spaces.”     

For Hallett, the network also will allow researchers to reap lessons quickly from significant weather events. He points to the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy as a case in point. “If we’d been online when it hit, we would have had real-time data on the impact,” he says “We could take a look at the computer as the storm was happening and make some discoveries about changes that occur during a large system like a hurricane.”        

It will take perhaps another year for all the 11 sites tapped to be part of the network to come online. Once the data is made widely available on the web, schools and other scientific researchers also will be able to use it. Plus, “A world of apps can be created to harness the data,” says Rustad. One example: an app tailored to the needs of grape growers. In addition, as new types of sensor become available, researchers will be able to add them to the network. Eventually, Rustad hopes to include as many as three dozen sites nation-wide.

Ultimately, however, the big payoff, according to Hallet, will take time to happen. “Tracking these forests over a period of years is where the real value lies,” he says.




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