Scientists get bird's eye view of forest


About 130 feet in the air is where forest ecologist Geoffrey Parker and his team hang out. Literally.

The researchers are in a basket dangling from a crane in what Mr. Parker calls the "biological frontier."

They are studying the treetops, known to these Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists as the forest canopy.

And while taking the pulse of leaves located where the atmosphere meets the biosphere may seem like obscure science, it is a hot subject in forest studies for researchers who believe their work will lead to an understanding of healthy forests.

It also will help them understand climate and pollution, how living things cope with the sun's intense radiation, organism habitat, forestry management and the interaction of forests and the atmosphere.

"It's unexplored. It's the biological frontier," Mr. Parker says, back on earth from a two-hour stint atop the woods.

This week, the scientists at the 2,600-acre facility are being aided in their work by the hydraulic crane with a 174-foot extension. It is the first time a crane has been used in a temperate-zone forest -- and that covers much of North America and Europe, Mr. Parker says.

High up, the scientists are measuring such things as how upright the leaves stand, the humidity in the air, the surface area per leaf at various upper reaches of the trees, and the amount of pigment in the leaves. Research is focusing on leaf structure, leaf orientation, and on the effect of ultra-violet rays on the leaf.

"We would expect the leaves to be thicker, smaller and more upright. They protect themselves from light -- the leaf equivalent of tanning -- they would have more pigment," Mr. Parker says.

They are studying dominant species in this forest, the tulip poplar, beech and oak, all common trees in Maryland.

The inability to get to the forest canopy has stymied much research, said Sarita Cargas, project facilitator. That's why SERC has had a tower in the forest for 2 1/2 years measuring temperature, wind, pollution fallout and the like.

Typically, scientists use ropes to climb trees, which wreaks havoc on the trees. Two researchers have fallen to their deaths in the tropics in recent years.

Despite the acrobatics and exhaustion, scientists on ropes can't get where they need to go, said Peter Stone, an ecologist on the forest canopy project. They get perhaps two-thirds of the way up a tree, never making it to the top.

The Smithsonian has had a permanent crane tower at its Tropical Research Institute in Panama -- its other location for forest canopy studies -- for four years.

The hydraulic crane at the Edgewater facility is owned by Johnson Crane Service of Beltsville, which is receiving about $5,000 for the five-day rental and operation. In the cab is operator Pat Johnson, who tries to maneuver the mechanical beast near the trees researchers have chosen for study.

Eventually, researchers hope to have a $1 million permanent crane at the center. But for now, they can't afford to have the temporary crane for more than a week, says Ms. Cargas. Researchers are using it eight hours a day, and will devote the fall and winter to analyzing leaves and information they collect.

"I think in terms of the ecology -- with all the stresses we put on our forests, it's important," says Jonathan Kays, a University of Maryland Extension Service specialist in natural resources.

"How are certain trees affected by pollution? What trees give off the most water? That's basic research that can be applied," he said. "As a forester, I need to know."

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