Forest Watch science and education strive to halt climate change

Eastern White Pine – Pinus strobus L. USDA photo

Eastern White Pine – Pinus strobus L. USDA photo

The state of New Hampshire, one of the most densely forested in the United States, takes its Eastern white pines very seriously. In Colonial times, the tree’s enormous height (one ancient tree was recorded to be 220 feet tall), straight trunk and flexibility made it the preferred source of masts for the British Royal Navy and the subject of one of the Colonies’ first laws, the Mast Preservation Clause of 1691. That was the cause of the nation’s first revolt against Great Britain in 1772 in Goffstown and Weare, N.H.

In the early years of the nation, millions of acres of Eastern white pinePinus strobus L. – stretched across southern Canada, the northeastern U.S., and as far west as northeastern Iowa, and as far south as northern Georgia. But by the 1800s most of the New World’s vast virgin forests had been logged out. Yet the Eastern white pine is a fast-growing conifer, upright with long five-needled polystelic shoots and it still abounds, second only to the sugar maple in numbers.

The neighboring state of Maine holds the title of “The Pine Tree State” and boasts the tallest Eastern white pine now standing at 132 feet (National Register of Big Trees), but New Hampshire’s harvest of Eastern white pine and hardwoods is still the state’s largest industry at $134 million for the wood alone. Emblematic of the dominance of trees in New Hampshire’s culture and economy are the University of New Hampshire’s academic and cooperative extension forestry programs for landowners, conservationists, students, researchers, policy planners and the lumber industry.

Yet industrial and automobile pollution concentrated around the state’s cities had taken their toll on the Eastern white pine. Residents didn’t need a forestry degree to see that the trees looked unhealthy—stunted with rust-colored needles. Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 to reduce the volume and size of air particulates and their damage to human health (death included) and vegetation. Subsequent amendments went even further. But when the smog cleared, there still was no systematic, scientific evidence to measure how much the Clean Air Act was helping the trees.

Forest Watch Established

Dr. Barrett N. “Barry” Rock, professor of forestry, botany and remote sensing in the Complex Systems Research Center and the Department of Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire, wanted to see if the Clean Air Act was working.

Rock, who had earned his Ph.D. in botany at the University of Maryland, conducts research and publishes on the remote sensing of vegetation, specifically on basic and applied research dealing with biophysical properties (pigment concentrations, anatomical characteristics, and moisture conditions) of leaves and their influence on reflectance features which may be remotely detected. He has been involved in vegetation discrimination and mapping of deciduous forest species in the eastern United States, spectral characterization and mapping of arid and semi-arid vegetation in the western United States, as well as assessment of state-of-health in coniferous vegetation using remotely sensed data, with emphasis on the use of high-spectral resolution data sets for this purpose.

He teaches, and runs a remote sensing research program with masters and doctoral students, but it was nowhere near large enough to undertake such an enormous project (was the Clean Air Act working?). He has also been deeply involved in K-12 education outreach in the U.S. and the Czech Republic, so he understands how to engage young students in scientific inquiry and its application. His solution to resolve his personnel shortage was organic.

He founded the Forest Watch Program in 1991 to draw upon thousands of primary and secondary school children and their teachers that he would train to become front-line researchers. Forest Watch is now in 160 schools throughout New England.

Forest Watch Authentic Science

Interviewed at the IGARSS conference in Boston last summer, he said Forest Watch students participate in three types of authentic science: forest stand assessment, laboratory-based assessment of damage symptoms, and image processing/data analysis of Landsat Thematic Mapper data for the area around their school.

The Forest Watch website reports that “participating schools select a permanent sampling plot in a pine stand and conduct several ecological and biophysical measurements using specific scientific protocols developed at UNH… Student data are compared to spectral data collected from samples sent to UNH, and the student and spectral data are compared to troposphere ozone data collected from state and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality monitoring sites throughout New England.”

“If I had hundreds of graduate students out there measuring trees, that would be great,” he said. “But that’s not realistic, so I have middle-schoolers, third-graders, and 11th-graders making measurements. As long as I can determine if those measurements are reliable, then I have data. And I have data sets that I have access to that I wouldn’t have in any other way.”

“We now have a long-term database and we can compare the data provided by the students of their foliage, using standard protocols,” Rock said. “Their data have been shown to be reliable. They are doing something that’s scientifically important and they’re contributing to an ongoing research project of benefit to their community,” Rock said. “So they’re getting excited about science and doing important stuff. To me that’s a win-win.”

A Forest Watch student and Barry Rock chart the health of white pines

A Forest Watch student and Barry Rock chart the health of white pines

“I’m looking at it as they are giving me information that I can use. We publish a State of the Forest document annually. Two thirds of the publication’s data comes from students.”

“We’ve learned essentially three things: the first and most important is that after the Clean Air Act amendments in the 1990s, the trees became dramatically healthier. It’s very significant that these amendments went into effect in 1994 and 1996, because we were seeing positive responses in the student data collected in 1996, 1997, 1998. The trees went from being reasonably unhealthy to being healthy, and they remain healthy across the 2000s.”

“The second thing we’re learning is that by measuring trees as they grow, the measurements of the rate of increase in growth give us the amount of carbon uptake (sequestration). White pine is a very common species in New England found extensively throughout all of the New England states. It is the second most prevalent species of tree, second only to sugar maple. The change in the rate of growth increase is that as the trees got healthier they start sequestering more and more carbon. We can use student data as input into climate models that can then tell us overall the storage capacity for carbon when the white pine is healthy.”

“The third thing we’re learning about Forest Watch is–as an indicator of climate change–it is educating the students who then go home and educate their parents. It has a multiplier effect. We use it as a vehicle for educating the public about climate change and it’s really very effective.”

“Having been in existence since 1991, I now have students that were pre-college Forest Watch students who are now at the University of New Hampshire. They are all concerned and excited about climate change. I now have people with PhDs who are teaching at colleges around the country and who started off in Forest Watch.”

A Future New England Climate?

In 2001, Rock was the lead author and general editor of the New England Regional Assessment, conducted between 1997 and 2001, that surveyed climate change impacts to the region, both over the past 100 years, and those projected for the future. The report–Preparing for a Changing Climate: New England Regional Overview of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change–was a major outreach component of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Assessment project.

The report’s two climate change models predict an altered New England over the next 100 years. “The Hadley Model projects a warming of 6º F in annual minimum temperatures and a 30% increase in precipitation for the region, while the Canadian Model projects a 10º F warming in minimum temperatures and a 10% precipitation increase over the next century. Either temperature increase would be greater than any climatic variation experienced in the region in the past 10,000 years. If either scenario occurs, the climate of the New England Region will be profoundly different than the climate of today.”

Eastern white pine long five-needled polystelic shoots. USDA photo.

Eastern white pine long five-needled polystelic shoots. USDA photo.

Said Rock, “The future of New England depends on what we do about climate change. The warming that is projected with increasing levels of CO2 will change New England very fundamentally. The indicator I use to show the very fundamental way that New England will change is to look at the 30 year temperature change for Boston from 1961 through 1990. Add 6° to it, which is the low end of the projection for warming over the next 100 years and that’s assuming we take steps to reduce CO2 levels, and you get the average temperature for Richmond, Virginia. If you add 10° to it, that’s the average temperature for Atlanta, Georgia. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Richmond, Virginia or Atlanta, Georgia, but I like Boston the way it is.”

“I can’t imagine New England if things become more humid, it’s hotter and the growing seasons change, species of trees change. It will be a very different place. Of course, now with the demands of the scientific community to decrease carbon 80 percent by 2050– which is a tall order but achievable–we’re going to see it get warmer, anyway. But I hope it’s only 3° not 60. Stabilizing our climate by 2020 would be desirable, but that’s not going to happen. There is no hope of keeping things the way they are today.”

“We just have to divorce ourselves from fossil fuels. I drive a Prius, my wife drives a Prius: they average 50 miles per gallon of gasoline. We used to drive a Ford Explorer that got 15 miles per gallon. In the five years that we’ve had the two cars we have emitted 85 tons less carbon. So these are achievable targets but we have to take them seriously.”

“This is where education comes in, this is where outreach comes in, and that’s what this conference (IGARSS) is all about.”