Little explored world has big implications for global climate change, medicine

August 3, 2006

WASHINGTON CASCADES -- Hanging by a thin rope at the top of a 30 story, 900 year old tree is just another day in the office for Evergreen State College professor Nalini Nadkarni.

It's a world that few see.

"It's a magical can't even see the ground," Nadkarni says, "the sounds and sights are amazing."

Dr. Nadkarni and other researchers from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. are gearing up for the Canopy Confluence, a research and outreach project focusing on the upper forest canopy, a world that until recently, was largely unexplored.

Nadkarni was one of the first researchers to study the forest canopy and made some of the first discoveries, like how trees extend their roots into the arboreal soil - hundreds of feet up -a soil generated by the 70 different species of moss that grow on tree branches.

"The world of the canopy is different than the forest floor," Nadkarni says, "one tree can host up to 60 or 70 species of moss, whereas there are only 15 or 20 species of ground rooted plants."

Among Nadkarni's most impressive discoveries was that roots from trees can grow out of branches, as well as development of new drugs from plants that only grow in the treetops.

But Nadkarni's work isn't only about roots, moss and medicine.

Nadkarni says there's a huge amount of carbon, a gas critical to Earth's biosphere, stored in the canopy. She says canopy research has huge implications for the study of global climate change - an issue becoming more and more on the thoughts of everyday America.

From climate change to bird behavior and sustainability, the team's work has broad meaning for the public- one of the things that researchers are now required to document and study for National Science Foundation grants, which has awarded the group more than $1.4 million.

Along with Evergreen students, Nadkarni and co-principal investigator Dr. Judy Cushing, a computer science faculty member at Evergreen and staff member Anne Fiala are developing a Canopy Database system so that data collected around the world about forest canopies can be centralized and standardized, work that will only help the relatively new study of canopies.

From August 13 through 24, the trio will bring together eight forest canopy ecologists from other institutions that will collect data on a variety of scientific projects from field sites on the western side of the Washington Cascades, with trees ranging from 100 to 1000 years old at Wind River, 60 miles east of Portland, Ore., and Cedar Flats, 70 miles northeast of Portland.

But that's not the unique part.

A group of artists will also be a part of the work. Poets, dancers, songwriters and painters, funded by the National Geographic Society, will join the cadre of ecologists in the field to interpret the ecology of the forest canopy and the way scientists work, which they will later disseminate to their audiences at poetry readings, dance performances, music concerts and art exhibitions.

The cutting edge science being carried out, the unique joining of scientists and artists in the field, and the rich possibility of materials that the venue and participants will create make it a unique research program - one of many for which The Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts and sciences college in Olympia, Wash., is widely known.

The project includes undergraduate and graduate students and researchers say it's globally important research that will connect with everyday people though art.

Another effort of Nadkarni's is to build a forest canopy walkway system in the treetops of the campus forests so that everyone - from toddlers to octogenarians - will have access to the amazing world. Progress on that project is dependant on private fundraising, and there is growing momentum to make that happen. The canopy walkways would be installed on the 1000 acre forested campus that sits on Washington's Puget Sound.

At the research sites, scientists will carry out projects that include identifying disease and virus transmissions from animals by trapping vertebrates who spend their entire life cycles in the trees and are very poorly known.

Among other aspects, researchers will quantify and make visualizations of the "air space" in the forest using new technology that links laser rangefinders with palm pilots to enhance data collection efficiency when hanging on ropes in the canopy, assessing the effects of host tree species on the biodiversity of moss communities and relating bird diversity to forest structure as stands develop through time.

Evergreen students will be carrying out projects involving ash from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens that can still be found under moss and performing a census of tree branches and comparing that to a census from five years ago.

Narkarni is one of the pioneers in forest canopy research. "I make sure my climbing harness is on correctly and I'm all ready to go," she says.

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