Technology, Forest Surveys, and Climate Change

A picture of several broadleaf trees surrounded by bright green grass on a sunny day
A view of a part of the Arboretum grounds on a beautiful sunny day

I can’t believe we are now entering into our third week of this fellowship! Part of me feels like it was just yesterday that I was meeting Quinn and Mackenzie (two of the other fellows) at the O’Hare airport for the first time. But another part of me feels like I’ve been doing this for months, as our days all seem to magically fill up very quickly.


I feel like a good explanation of what I have actually been doing these past two weeks and what my general plan is for the rest of the fellowship is already long overdue. So this blog post will be primarily dedicated to giving you an overview of my project and a brief look at what I’ve been up to these past two weeks.


My exact research question has yet to be finalized (or really drafted for that matter). However, the general premise of it is that I want to compare three different methods of surveying forests and determine which method provides the best balance between accuracy and efficiency.


Now you might read that and ask me “So what Ali? What is so important about trying to figure that out?”  At first I struggled with those same questions. But after some really good discussion with my mentor Chuck, and some more thought on the matter, I have come to realize just how important it could be.


It all comes down to the amount of data we can collect in a short amount of time. In order to studying changes in forests overtime, we need large quantities of information on them as we go through time. This is particularly important in developing our understanding of the potential ramifications of global climate change. If we can understand the structure of our forests now, we will have a better chance of noticing large scale patterns of change that we can use to better predict how climate change will impact certain areas of the world.


The sun setting over a field of tall grass on the west side of The Morton Arboretum
A beautiful moment captured as the sun was setting over a field on the west side of The Morton Arboretum


However, the traditional method of gathering information on forests require an individual to go out and physically walk to every tree and take measurements like the diameter of the tree at breast height (a measurement of the size of a tree that requires you to wrap a tape measure around the trunk of the tree). And let me tell you, it takes a lot of time and effort to do this over large areas of land, particularly when there is really dense undergrowth that makes it hard to get from tree to tree (as shown in the picture below). This is why there are very few forest survey studies out there that span a large amount of area. Instead, we often find ourselves with a lot of information on only a few scattered areas of the forest. This is a problem when you are trying to understand a widespread global issue that is having large impacts on whole forest systems.


A tape measure ribbon disappears into the understory vegetation
I spy with my little eye Quinn Taylor struggling through the understory vegetation


So, to address this issue, some scientists are trying to use technology to try and speed up this process. My project is trying to build off of a technique developed by a couple of Australian scientists that uses 360 degree photographs of a sample area to determine the basic information of that area of forest. I am particularly looking at how we can use this photographic technique and a technique using a laser finder to measure forests more efficiently. Hopefully, by using these techniques to gather information about forests, we will be able to speed up the process of collecting information, which will then allow us to more easily gather information on large areas of land really quickly.


One of the great things about looking at photography as a way to gather information on forests is that it has the potential to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in the scientific process through citizen science. Theoretically, since many people these days have access to high tech camera equipment because of personal uses, they could use those cameras to help the scientific community gather information by simply taking twenty minutes of their time to take 360 degree pictures of places they encounter and then uploading it to a large database of some kind where experts can analyze and quantify these pictures. However, this type of application is still a long ways off. Still, it is cool to think that what I am doing this summer could eventually lead to something like that, where the gap between the general public and the scientific community is bridged on some level.


All of this application stuff seems really cool and something to be super excited about for the future. However, my project itself is just a stepping stone, a place all amazing ideas must start at in order to develop into something further. This first step is to determine how much faster these techniques can be without sacrificing the accuracy of the traditional method.


A majestic Bald Cypress in a grove of other trees
As a side note, I ran into a beautiful grove of Bald Cypress trees one day. I think they might be my new favorite tree!


To do this, I first have to measure all of my plots using the traditional method of measuring everything by hand. Then take 360 degree photographs of the plots and analyze them. Then measure all of the trees in the plot using a hand held laser finder. I can then finally look at the time it takes to perform each of these methods and compare them to one another to determine which one is the quickest while maintaining the accuracy of the traditional method.


For these past two weeks, I have been helping a colleague of mine, Quinn, set up her 15 by 15 meter plots and measuring all of the trees in those plots. This task has allowed me to get use to identifying the common trees in the area (which can sometimes be quite a challenge when the leaves are 50 ft off the ground), and get very familiar with measuring each tree’s DBH (Diameter at Breast Height, or basically an estimation of the size of a tree).


However, now since my mentor is back from doing some work overseas, we are really able to start focusing our combined efforts on getting this project off the ground. Currently, I am trying to get familiar with how to use Chuck’s DSLR camera and tripod efficiently and how to work the Criterion RD 1000 and the TruPoint Laser Finder (which includes how to turn the thing on… as well as calibrating it).


One of the problems I am grappling with right now is the size of the plots that I can/should measure with each of these techniques. So far, I have been measuring circular plots that are approximately 250 meters squared, or 0.025 hectares, using the traditional method. According to the handbook, the TruPoint Laser Finder can measure non-reflective surfaces up to 1,000 meters away, which would equate (if I did my math correctly) to a circle plot that would cover 314 hectares of land, which is a fifth of the entire Arboretum! I am positive that the device will not be able to read a tree’s diameter at that distance considering the amount of things that will be directly in lasers way that are much closer than that. However, I have no idea how far it will be able to reach in the forests where I am doing this project. I do know that the photography technique is supposed to be able to measure one hectare of land at a time, however, I am also not sure if it will be able to measure that far in the dense forests that I am working in. So I am trying to figure out a reasonable size for these plots. Hopefully in the next couple of days I will be able to experiment with each one enough that I will have a much better idea about how far each technique can measure.


A bright orange meter tape being pulled into the understory by a researcher
The bright orange meter tape that I became quite acquainted with over these past two weeks


Wow this post turned into a mini essay… I will leave you with all of that information to process for now. If you are curious about any aspect of this project or have any burning question about anything, leave it in the comments below and I will try and answer them as best I can!


Till next week,