Share Scientific Breakthroughs, New Tools and Technologies
An unusual observation, a knotty problem or a desire to make the world a better place, combined with a scientist’s inherent curiosity always lead to questions, questions often lead to investigations and investigations sometimes lead to scientific breakthroughs. These breakthroughs take the form of innovative technologies, novel approaches to tackling old and new problems, and fresh ideas about increasing efficiencies and taking advantage of opportunities. This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership that demonstrate how scientific breakthroughs, new tools and technologies, when shared with land managers and partners, can help solve contemporary natural resource issues.
Maple Watch is part of Forest Watch, a broader K-12 educational research program of the New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium.
Learn about all of the Forest Watch educational resources.
Morgan Grove can capture the aim of his 21 years of Forest Service research and approximately 130 journal articles in a simple declarative sentence: “I work to make cities better and safer places for people to live.”
A research forester stationed at the Northern Research Station’s Baltimore Field Station, Grove’s research focuses on urban ecology; among many other projects, his research has included developing techniques for measuring urban tree canopy, quantifying the effect of urban forests on crime, and using mapping as a technique for documenting environmental justice issues.
Over the past few years, Grove has worked with several partners on the Baltimore Wood Project, an effort to repurpose wood from vacant or remodeled homes and put the wood of felled or fallen urban trees to use. With an estimated 16,000 row houses scheduled for demolition, the Baltimore Wood Project could greatly reduce the amount of wood that goes into the city’s waste stream as well as create jobs for people who may have barriers to employment.
“Rethinking Baltimore's wood waste has the potential to benefit the city and people,” Grove said. “Transforming reclaimed wood from waste to high-value furniture creates jobs, spurs local enterprise, provides green materials, and helps the city achieve its vision of a sustainable future.”
A native of Philadelphia, Grove has always been fascinated by cities and the role of natural resources in enhancing how they function and what they contribute to people’s lives. While he had planned to become an architect, he was introduced to the Forest Service while attending the Yale School of Forestry and found himself drawn to the agency’s service orientation.
Most of Grove’s tenure with the Forest Service has been spent in Baltimore developing the Baltimore Field Station and contributing to the development of the Northern Research Station’s Urban Field Station Network, which now includes Baltimore, New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“It’s really fun to do science about making the world a better place,” Grove said.
Many factors produce changes that ripple through forest ecosystems: invasive and even native insects, wildfire, drought, precipitation, disease, and climate variability all have the potential to alter the landscape. Scientists with the U.S. Forest Service are part of a collaboration that is developing a new tool that gives forest managers a clearer picture of how change will play out across the forest under different scenarios.
“Forest managers need landscape modeling tools to project the consequences of management options while taking into account growth, disturbances, and climate,” said Eric Gustafson, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Gustafson has been instrumental in developing LandViz.
LandViz is a generic, web-based landscape visualization system that allows users to visualize the output from forest landscape simulation models that predict how climate and management scenarios may change the landscape.
“LandViz is a tool that allows forest managers to easily access and interpret the overwhelming output from landscape models,” Gustafson said.
The LandViz project began in 2012 as a collaboration of the Forest Service and Portland State University, funded by the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. A recent publication (General Technical Report 164) describes one of the first applications of LandViz – its use in conducting a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Chippewa National Forest in Northern Minnesota. The LANDIS-II landscape model produced projections of a wide variety of future forest characteristics under climate change, and Chippewa National Forest staff employed LandViz to explore the outputs and answer specific questions related to management goals.
“One of the greatest benefits of LandViz for managers is its ability to paint a picture of the realm of future possibilities,” said Kelly Barrett, wildlife biologist with the Chippewa National Forest. “The ability to visualize how climate and various management scenarios may change a landscape through time is very powerful and compelling.”
Hardwood Log Defect Detection
The wood from Eastern hardwood trees, such as oak, poplar and maple, is highly valued in furniture making and other uses, but log defects reduce the appearance and strength of the lumber produced and in turn the value of the lumber a saw mill produces. To help overcome this problem, U.S. Forest Service scientists have developed a new methodology that uses a combination of laser scanning technology and acoustics to detect defects inside the log. The technology has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency with which hardwood logs are milled and optimize use of wood resources.
Log defects are caused by a host of factors occurring during a tree’s life time, such as branches growing and forming knots, and damage from insects, birds and pathogens. “Before automation, an experienced sawyer working in the mill would have more time to recognize log surface defects, and understand their impact on the grade and value of boards that would be sawn,” said Ed Thomas, research computer scientist with the Northern Research Station. “They could adjust their sawing process to minimize the impact of defects.”
Today, mills run at much higher speeds and the sawyer no longer has time to consider all the defects on the log face and come up with a solution. Researchers have experimented with a number of ways to improve detection of defects inside the log, such as using x-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However there are often hidden decay pockets associated with a surface defect that cannot be detected using scanning alone.
To enhance the ability to detect log defects, a new method, combining laser and acoustic technology, was developed by Thomas in collaboration with Senior Research Associate Xiping Wang and Research General Engineer Bob Ross at the Forest Products Lab, and researchers at the University of Minnesota. “Using the new technology would allow the saw mill operator to avoid logs which have no profit or result in a loss, and concentrate on logs that would be profitable,” said Thomas. “Logs that could not be sawn at profit at one mill could be sold to another mill, or directed to another product stream such as pulp or particle board.”
No sawmills are currently using this new technology. However, the promising results from research to date have led to establishment of a provisional patent. Currently, scientists are beginning discussions with an industrial partner to further develop the system so it can be used in the field.
Can the sap of sugar maple trees serve as a window on forest health? A research collaboration aimed at answering that question was inspired by New Hampshire maple syrup producer Martha Carlson’s curiosity about unusually dark sap she observed in 2009, the year after a significant drought.
Maple Watch is a collaboration of the Northern Research Station, New Hampshire maple syrup producers, the University of New Hampshire and New Hampshire high school students. Senior Research Plant Pathologist of Walter Shortle the Northern Research Station and University of New Hampshire professors, Barrett Rock and Sterling Tomellini, are exploring the chemistry of sugar maple sap and whether environmental stress such as drought can change its chemistry in a way that might allow researchers to monitor trees’ health as climate and habitat suitability shift. “If sap can signal problems before we actually see trees dying, we may have a chance to do something,” Shortle said. “By the time we see branches starting to die, it’s too late.”
Sugar maple’s range extends from South Carolina to New England and the Lake States, and in order to sample the entire range, Shortle and his colleagues are beginning the research by working with maple syrup producers who are willing to serve as citizen scientists. One of the first challenges is to develop methods for chemical analysis of sap. Once scientists have established methods of analysis, they will experimentally test their ideas by exposing trees to environmental stress to see how sap chemistry is changed.
While its roots are in research, Maple Watch has grown to include hands-on science opportunities for New Hampshire students. A collaborator developed a program around Maple Watch research that gives high school students opportunities to learn to analyze maple sap at their schools using modern laboratory equipment. The program also provides training for teachers through the University of New Hampshire.
For Carlson, Maple Watch represents an opportunity for sugar makers to participate in research that has the potential to help everyone who cares about sugar maples to "see" effects of climate change. “Many things are changing in America's forests today,” Carlson said. “Perhaps our project can serve as a model for other timberland owners and forest scientists for collaborative and imaginative research.”