Wondering About Winter

E-mail Melanie Martella

This winter, at least here in the Northeast U.S., has been a very odd one. Unusually low amounts of snow and very mild temperatures have combined to make a not terribly wintery winter and while that's great news for commuters and those of us who have to dig out driveways and roofs anytime the white stuff falls, it's not necessarily doing our flora and fauna any favors.

Data back up what we've experienced over the last couple of years, that our New England winters are changing, with less snow coverage and an earlier spring. In New Hampshire, tourism is a major source of income, with the fall foliage season acting as one of the larger tourism draws. Without the extreme temperature swings that fall and late winter bring, the vibrancy of the foliage could be affected, as could our maple syrup production. Sensors are increasingly finding uses in this kind of habitat-related environmental monitoring. Susan Seligson's article, "Templer's Sense of Snow" in Boston University's BU Today Web site describes the work of College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of biology Pamela Templer who is seeking to understand how a changing snowpack affects the northeast forest ecosystem. This project is interesting to me for two main reasons. The first, because it's about a year-round data gathering endeavor that gives an unprecedented data set exploring how the trees in the research forest enclaves behave in response to seasonal weather changes and ongoing climate changes. The second, is the variety of different sensors that are being used to collect data, in addition to taking samples and observations.

Both of these reasons encapsulate why we talk about sensors as an enabling technology and why people like me get very animated when talking about the wonderful things you can learn by using them. Sensors expand our ability to measure properties we either couldn't measure before or couldn't measure as easily or as often (continuous monitoring vs. taking point samples back to the lab, for instance), and they let us take measurements in locations where that wasn't an option before. As prices go down, projects such as this can use more sensors to collect data, achieving a more nuanced picture of how the studied environment behaves.

I may not believe that we can beat Mother Nature, but I'm certain that we can understand her better.

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