A collaborative project between New Hampshire universities, the National Science Foundation, and state agencies is looking at ecosystem health and how the environment is affected by climate change.
At first glance, this part of Saddleback Mountain in Deerfield looks like a regular forest. But look closer and you see thick, black electrical cords running along the forest floor and silver instruments sitting among the trees.
“You see a small antenna attached to that tree, so using cell phone telemetry, we can beam the data back to UNH, where I can sit behind my desk and know that our power is tripped and I need to get out here and do some servicing.”
That’s University of New Hampshire aqua-sensor technician Lisle Snyder. He’s out here to reset a data logger whose power has tripped.
Saddleback is one of seven running aqua-sensor sites across the state; soon, three more will be added. The thick tubular sensors take 15-20 water samples every 15 minutes, measuring nitrate, carbon, nitrogen, and temperature in rivers and streams.
To a large group of N.H. scientists, these aqua sensors are key to understanding the current condition of the state’s ecosystems.
“We really can push science forward with the use of sensors that only recently have been available on the commercial market.”
That’s Bill McDowell, the UNH professor that heads up aqua-sensor research. He says the project’s use of sensors is unique.
Other scientists and professors from Dartmouth, Plymouth State, Keene, St. Anselm, and White Mtn. Community Colleges all work on the Ecosystems + Society in N.H. project, funded by NH EPSCoR, which is part of the National Science Foundation.
To do this means collecting an exhaustive amount of data.
The sensors have been taking 15 minute samples for two years, and have three more years to go. At the end of the project, they will have collected the most data on N.H. ecosystems to date.
“There are few places in the country that have this level of intensity in terms of numbers of sensors ; it may be the densest array of sensors around…it puts us in N.H. on the cutting edge of the technology and the science.”
Sensors are just one piece of the puzzle. The scope of the Ecosystems + Society project is large, with experts on soil composition, forest canopy health, and snow reflectivity all doing research.
But it all started when state scientists wanted to know why regional weather was getting more extreme. UNH professor and glaciologist Cameron Wake says these new patterns mean more rain.
“We’re getting much bigger rainstorms than we used to get; we’re getting many more of those big rainstorms.”
Floods from these storms this summer have already caused millions of dollars in damages. And they can also lead to erosion and run-off, presenting a serious problem for water quality, according to DES Watershed Bureau Administrator Ted Diers.
“Where we see water quality problems, about eighty percent of the time, it’s somehow related to storm water, whether that be phosphorus in the lakes, nitrogen in the estuaries, or other problems related to dissolved oxygen.”
It’s something that towns and state agencies are already wrestling with. Nowhere more so than the seacoast’s Great Bay, an estuary plagued by high levels of nitrogen, algal blooms, and shrinking levels of oxygen in the water.
With aqua-sensors, UNH technician Lisle Snyder says scientists can monitor the rivers and streams that drain into Great Bay.
“During a storm event, we might see a flush of nitrate coming from the surrounding landscape. One of the neat things we can do is in a site like this, relate what’s going on in the soil as far as the soil moisture content and temperature and link that with what’s happening shortly thereafter in the stream.”
But the project goes beyond just tracking water quality. And that’s where UNH demographer Ken Johnson comes in. He’s working with UNH forestry professor Mark Ducey to see how population growth affects N.H. forests.
“No one discipline is capable of seeing this bigger picture. The environmental problems that the state or that the nation are going to face in the future are multi-disciplinary. This is an intelligent way to address a complicated problem.”
No matter how in-depth their data is, state scientists including Wake say their efforts boil down to preserving something simple.
“One of the things I’ve found as I’ve gone across the state and talked to people is they appreciate the quality of life in N.H. because at lunchtime they can go walk in the woods, or on the weekend they can take their kids and go swimming in a lake that’s clean and healthy.”
At the project’s conclusion, the group will present 2-3 possible ecosystems and land use scenarios to state and town officials and small business owners. Scientists will release their research briefs and preliminary findings in 2014.