By Drew Pendergrass
Ninety minutes west of Boston, up the road from a Benedictine monastery, lies what is perhaps the most studied forest on Earth. Since 1907, when the first of these 3,850 acres of black oak and red maple was donated to Harvard University, researchers have been designing experiments to better understand the woodland ecosystem—including the longest-running climate-change simulation ever conducted. Around dawn one morning in October, I arrived at a redbrick laboratory at the edge of the forest to meet Clarisse Hart, a graduate student in the forestry program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has been the director of outreach and education here for over a decade. Hart’s short brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore a purple sweatshirt tied around her waist. She spoke with the gentle, pragmatic voice of someone who spends a lot of time around trees. Together we stepped into the autumn air and walked along a wide dirt road into the woods.
As we hiked, I began to notice scientific instruments hiding among the blueberries and starflowers on the forest floor. White PVC pipes emerged from the soil at forty-five-degree angles, shielding cameras that use subterranean flash photography to capture images of slowly growing roots. I spotted a couple of bright blue circles on the ground, each about the size of a quarter, which Hart explained were ant traps, designed to take a census of roving insect armies. Not all the equipment was sophisticated: researchers had stationed laundry baskets at regular intervals to catch falling leaves, which they then weighed to help measure the flow of carbon from the trees to the soil. Hart pointed out something to our right that looked like a partially buried Instant Pot, its lid open and attached by a hinge. Inside I saw nothing but dirt. Without warning, the lid snapped shut, sealing off a small part of forest floor. Hart said that researchers use these devices to measure how much carbon is being released by the soil. Read more…
Photo Caption: Heated soil plots in the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts.