Idaho Researchers Monitoring Ecosystem Breathing Patterns

By Tom Bacon

Some University of Idaho researchers figure that an old-fashioned reliable way of testing a person's respiratory health might work on a much larger scale - on mountains and forests in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

A couple of professors in UI's forestry department have been slogging up steep mountainsides digging holes to plant tiny sensors. Katy Kavanaugh and Tim Link aim to connect the sensors to make a network which will tell them about the ecosystem as it breathes.

They call is the Moutainous Ecosystem Sensor Array, MESA, which should run for the next five years in the heart of the 2 million acre wilderness.  Monitoring sites will have radio transmitters, antennas, sensors, and solar and wind-powered batteries to constantly collect data on relative humidity, temperature in the air and soil, leaf and soil wetness, tree growth, and carbon dioxide levels.

In other words, the respiratory functions of the forest.

Kavanagh and Link can use the information collected to forecast potential impacts of climate change. Researchers believe that as the climate warms, vegetation which now grows at 3,000 feet may climb up the mountain slopes to flourish at 5,000 feet.

The MESA system's hardware was designed by University of Idaho electrical engineering graduate students.
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