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Cool New Research Technologies

July 2014: Cool New Research Technologies

For some of us, something called a “floppy disk” was the first harbinger of a wave of technology that has dramatically changed our lives since the day we first played Pong. From manufacturing to our cars to the cell phone in our pocket, the technology has been fast and dazzling.

Technology has changed our lives, and it has changed forest science, too. Entire experimental forests can be “wired” to deliver meteorological and hydrological data in close to real time. Maps made by beaming light from airplane-mounted sensors create data that improve measuring and managing urban forests. Radiocarbon tells the story of how carbon journeys through an ecosystem. One tree’s cells can be used to make the entire species stronger.

This month, we feature a scientist, a product, a partnership and research that illustrate the extremely cool technology we’re using to make forests healthier, and in turn improve people’s lives.

Environmental Education Link

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Featured Scientist

Paula M. Pijut

Paula PijutFrom a single seed of a resilient ash tree, Research Plant Physiologist Paula M. Pijut is helping the entire species develop defenses against the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive non-native forest pest that has killed millions of ash trees in the past decade.

The daughter of avid gardeners, Pijut grew up loving plants. “My parents are really the ones who got me excited about plants and growing plants” she said. After working as a medical technologist for 7 years, Pijut knew that she wanted to continue her education and pursue a career in either human health or plant health, and her interest in plants prevailed.
Using technology that was developed primarily to improve woody ornamental plants, Pijut modifies tree cells to help them resist or tolerate stressors such as insects and disease. Her recent work includes developing a plant regeneration and genetic modification protocol for pumpkin ash, a wetlands tree species that could be listed as an endangered species in the wake of the EAB invasion. With the same technology, Pijut can use outstanding specimens of high-value trees such as black cherry and black walnut for clonal propagation and conservation, and to improve the health and quality of trees.

Pijut is part of the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center, a collaboration of the Northern Research Station with Purdue University, industry, private, state and federal partners that focuses on improving forest productivity, hardwood restoration, and reforestation programs.

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Featured Product

LiDAR Maps Illuminating Urban Tree Canopy

LiDAR view of Central Park.Urban trees are often worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to an individual city in the form of the ecosystem services they provide, such as cleaning the air, reducing energy costs and intercepting storm water. Trees also represent a major investment, with individual street tree plantings costing $1,000 or more.  Urban forest managers need more than hope when they make decisions about how many trees to plant and where they are planted. They need data.

NRS scientist Morgan Grove and Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, the Director of Vermont's Spatial Analysis Laboratory who has a shared position with NRS, developed advanced processing techniques that help meet that need. Grove and O’Neil-Dunne created Urban Tree Canopy assessments, producing new land-cover maps that are 900 times more detailed than existing datasets.  These land cover datasets map trees as short as 8 feet in height.  To date, Urban Tree Canopy assessments have been completed for more than 70 communities in the United States and Canada.

The Urban Tree Canopy assessment is possible thanks to high-resolution data acquired using a technology known as LiDAR, a name that combines “light” and “radar”. The technology isn’t new – since the 1960s  it has been used to measure clouds, the speed of cars, and even to map the surface of the moon – but its application to urban forests is a more recent use of LiDAR.
Mounted on airplanes for the purpose of mapping, LiDAR sensors emit their own energy in the form of a laser, resulting in images that show virtually every tree in a city.
For O’Neil-Dunne, the most exciting thing about the Urban Tree Canopy assessment has been the opportunity to help cities with their greening activities. “This is something that communities need and are excited about,” he said. “It is helping to level the playing field so we can manage green infrastructure on the same basis as we manage grey infrastructure.”

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Featured Research

SMART Technology at Marcell Experimental Forest

Ian Halm is installing sensors on the tower at the meteorological station.For just over half a century, strip chart recorders at the Marcell Experimental Forest near Grand Rapids, Minn., tracked air temperature, precipitation, and streamflow measurements for long-term watershed studies. The measurements had to be collected and transcribed, and it took months or even years before data could be packaged and made available to scientists, cooperators, or interested citizens.

In May, the range of data collected at the Marcell Experimental Forest and the speed of delivery leaped into the digital age. Staff from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, a leader in the Forest Service’s implementation of Smart Forest technology, traveled to the Marcell to install a 30-foot tower instrumented with sensors to measure wind speed and direction, relative humidity, solar radiation, soil moisture, and air temperature.  Communications equipment was  installed that allows NRS technicians and scientists in Grand Rapids to download data and check conditions from their offices.  A nearby stream gage was also tied into the remote data access. Ultimately, archived and near-real time data will be available via webpages.

“We can have all of that information available to us, our cooperators, other agencies, educators, and the public,” according to Stephen Sebestyen, a research hydrologist at the Marcell Experimental Forest. “The Smart Forest implementation will allow us to do more science and spend less time collecting data.”

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Featured Partnership

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory - Radio Carbon Spectral Analysis

NRS researcher Dr. Kate Heckman standing next to the 10 MV tandem Van de Graaff accelerator mass spectrometer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where radiocarbon measurements are conducted as part of the Radiocarbon Collaborative.

Great partnerships broaden your horizons. In 2011, the Northern Research Station and Lawrence Livermore National Lab, a world leader in radiocarbon analysis, joined forces to advance the fields of carbon and climate science. Since then, the partnership has opened doors for research in the areas of paleoecology, paleoclimate, fire frequency, dendrochronology, and the fate of carbon in streams and lakes. Kate Heckman, an NRS postdoctoral scientist studying soil biogeochemistry, is hosted by Lawrence Livermore and works with NRS scientist Chris Swanston to support numerous Forest Service studies. 
“Our research is greatly enhanced by our connection with a research facility of this caliber and with this capacity,” said Swanston, the director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, a collaborative effort by the Forest Service, Michigan Technological University, the Trust for Public Land, and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. “We are pursuing science that we could not have pursued without Lawrence Livermore.”

Radiocarbon, a rare isotope of carbon, is well known for its role in carbon dating; it is also extremely useful in learning how carbon cycles through ecosystems. Changes in the ratios of radiocarbon to other carbon isotopes help chart the movement of carbon through ecosystems. Forest Service scientists use this technology to study ecosystem carbon cycling and carbon’s vulnerability to land use and climate change.
While the partnership gives Northern Research Station scientists access to Lawrence Livermore’s expertise in measuring and interpreting radiocarbon, Lawrence Livermore is gaining access to forest ecology infrastructure developed by the Northern Research Station over the past three-quarters of a century.

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