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Innovation and Technology

August 2015

New technology enhances Northern Research Station scientists’ ability to do research and deliver results but, at its heart, science is an exercise in innovation. The technology can astound us, but it is the ideas behind scientists’ use of technology that can change a landscape.

August marks the 100th anniversary of an innovation that continues to influence the American landscape: establishment of a research and development branch within the USDA Forest Service. Across the nation, Forest Service science has contributed to the health and sustainability of forests and all of the species that depend on them – including us. This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership that shine light on innovation and new technology at the Northern Research Station.

Environmental Education Link

Visit our WaterViz page at:

Climate change atlas activities are part of Project Learning Tree’s Southeastern Forests and Climate Change, a secondary education module designed to teach about climate change impacts on forest ecosystems, the role of forests in sequestering carbon, and strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to changing climate conditions.

Featured Scientist

Lindsey Rustad

Lindsey Rustad.If you schedule a phone call with Lindsey Rustad, dust off your web camera and plan to use it. Rustad, a forest ecologist and team leader with the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, is an enthusiastic advocate of availing yourself of new technology, whatever it might be.

For the 80 experimental forests managed by the USDA Forest Service, technology is changing the face of forest monitoring, and Rustad is part of a team that is developing the Forest Service’s network of “Smart Forests.” Within the Northern Research Station, eight (and soon to be 10) experimental forests are now equipped with state-of-the art environmental sensors and wireless communication networks that allow scientists to monitor conditions at multiple locations within the forest, and also retrieve and post the data in near real-time. “High-frequency environmental sensors are giving us a whole new window on watersheds,” Rustad said. “Collecting data over decades has given us insight into long-term ecosystem change; hundreds of sensors collecting data every few minutes or even every minute will allow insights on short-term drivers of change which is especially important when trying to understand forest effects of extreme events such as floods, droughts, wind and ice storms.”

In addition to expanding how data is collected, Rustad is interested in technology to create new ways to deliver forest data. In Waterviz, for example, Rustad and a team of artists and musicians created an online tool that converts real-time data from the Hubbard Brook Watershed into imagery and sound, allowing visitors to see and hear the water cycle. In another project, Rustad collaborates with the University of Southern Maine (USM) to create a cyber ‘bridge’ that carries data from experimental forests to science, technology, environment and math students at USM who have disabilities that limit their access to forests.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Rustad’s home geography includes both the Atlantic seaboard and the northern hardwood forests she grew up visiting and now lives and works in. Long Island Sound’s descent into pollution and ultimate recovery remains a strong influence that inspires Rustad to not only conduct research, but to connect people with that research. “If we want people to care about a healthy environment, we need to make the science accessible and engaging to a broad audience,” she said.

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Featured Product

Climate Change Tree Atlas

Online tool shows where trees may be in 100 years.If you manage trees, study trees, or just love trees, you may need insights into how climate change may affect your forests over the coming decades. The Northern Research Station’s Climate Change Tree Atlas, a tool that was designed and built by a team of NRS scientists and information technology specialists, presents the current and possible future distribution of suitable habitats for 134 tree species in the Eastern United States. The Atlas also provides detailed information on environmental characteristics defining tree distribution and explains the models used in the distribution projections.

“We want research to be valuable to managers,” said Louis Iverson, a research landscape ecologist with the NRS in Delaware, Ohio, and a co-creator of the Climate Change Tree Atlas. “We want to do our best to provide them with information that will result in healthier and more resilient forests.”

The Climate Change Tree Atlas aims to identify:

  • How suitable habitats for tree (and bird) species may change under future climates
  • The likelihood that modeled future habitats can be colonized by the species within 100 years
  • How much unmodeled factors, such as disturbances and biological characteristics, can influence future outcomes

The first hard copy edition of the Climate Change Tree Atlas was published in 1999. Since then, NRS scientists Anantha Prasad, Stephen Matthews, Matthew Peters, and Iverson have produced subsequent web versions of the atlas with updated and finer-scale Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data, environmental data, and climate scenario data. Recently, help from information technology specialists Jim Lootens-White and Sharon Hobrla have updated and streamlined the site into a better web research tool. The Climate Change Tree Atlas team has also kept current with advances in technology, refining modelling techniques as they have become available. “We’ve always been pushing the limits of what our computers can do,” Iverson said.

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Featured Research

Biomarkers of tree health

Research crew from NRS, University of New Hampshire and Williams College collect leaves and preserve samples for future analysis.By the time a tree’s leaves start showing visual symptoms of climate-related stress, it is probably too late to save it. Rakesh Minocha, a plant physiologist in the Northern Research Station’s lab in Durham, N.H., studies “metabolites,” the interior of tree cells, to explore whether chemicals such as polyamines and amino acids, that may be produced in response to stress, can serve as biochemical markers of forest tree health.

Minocha’s team is using modern biochemistry and molecular biology tools to develop a suite of biomarkers that could help detect stress in trees in the early stages, before the appearance of visual symptoms. The long-term goal is to develop diagnostic kits that foresters can use to monitor forest health, much like blood tests for measuring sugar and cholesterol to help evaluate human health. Using leaves collected from mid-canopy or higher, Minocha evaluates tree health with techniques such as HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) for quantifying amino acids and polyamines; Ion Chromatography for measuring nutrients like calcium and magnesium; and spectroscopy for studying chlorophyll and proteins.

The first step in using tree metabolites as diagnostic tools is to gather baseline data for establishing a healthy range of concentrations of select biomarkers for each tree species. In a complementary approach, Minocha and her team are also evaluating the effects of simultaneously acting environmental stress factors (for example, drought, insects, fungal pathogens and lack of calcium) on select metabolites using either plot studies at Long-term Ecological Research sites or naturally existing gradients of stress in forests around the globe.

“The more of a tree’s total energy budget is spent on defense, the less is left for growth,” Minocha said. “The sooner we can help trees manage their stresses from environmental factors, the sooner we can improve the health and sustainability of the forests.”

Featured Partnership

WGBH and PLUM Landing

PLUM urges kids to explore their world.

Her name is PLUM, and she comes from a planet that is low on natural beauty. Fascinated by Earth, PLUM has recruited a dedicated team of kids, equipped them with tools that non-animated scientists can only dream of, and has given them an assignment: “Explore your world, one mission at a time.” Brought to you by WGBH with support from the USDA Forest Service, PLUM LANDING is a PBS KIDS project that aims to encourage 6- to 9- year olds to get interested in both the outdoors and science.

Reaching 6- to 9- year olds isn’t what it used to be. PLUM is more than a PBS animated program; PLUM LANDING is a multi-platform, indoor-outdoor, science exploration adventure for kids and grown-ups. There are games, animations, videos, an app, a digital curriculum for after-school programs and summer camps, as well as science activities for parents and kids to do together.

“PLUM LANDING is an exceptional opportunity for the Forest Service to work with a partner that is so skilled at reaching youth through digital platforms,” said Barbara McGuinness, environmental literacy coordinator for the Northern Research Station, “and our partnership with WGBH has expanded to working together on ”Discover the Forest” and “Every Kid in a Park” programs that have the same target audience as PLUM LANDING.”

Just over a year since its debut, it’s clear that PLUM is already reaching an audience. The website ( has garnered more than 28 million page views, kids have watched PLUM LANDING videos nearly 50 million times, and children have collected enough points via the site’s online games to “buy” more than 1 million virtual stickers. “Children have also sent us more than 135,000 photographs and drawings sharing their own observations and ideas about nature,” said Heidi Shin, Outreach Project Director of PLUM LANDING. “That is the most gratifying metric we’re seeing since it shows that kids are doing more than just clicking and watching, they are getting outside and exploring their environments.”

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