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Scientists have high hopes for tower

The tower has been taking measurements for UI researchers since August 2005. 
 (Photo courtesy of the University of Idaho / The Spokesman-Review)
The tower has been taking measurements for UI researchers since August 2005. (Photo courtesy of the University of Idaho / The Spokesman-Review)

In the mountains about 20 miles east of Santa, Idaho, a tall tower is taking some very quick, very careful measurements.

Every tenth of a second for about year, the 130-foot tower, which was built by University of Idaho scientists, has measured temperature, water vapor, carbon and wind speed. The information should help give a clearer picture of the way carbon, a key contributor to global warming, behaves in the atmosphere around mountainous terrain with lots of year-round vegetation.

Given that Idaho has more acres of coniferous forest than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains, the research could help scientists determine how forests can help offset carbon dioxide pollution.

“The motivation behind this is largely to figure out the capacity of these forested areas to take in carbon,” said Russ Qualls, Idaho’s state climatologist and an associate professor at the UI.

Working with a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Qualls and his colleagues built the tower in the Mica Creek watershed.

The tower is on Potlatch land about a third of a mile from the nearest road in the summer – right now, it’s about a 6-mile-long snowmobile ride or snowshoe hike.

When they began working on the tower last summer, researchers had to haul in more than 50 bags of concrete, weighing 80 pounds each, as well as the water to mix it. The tower, in 10-foot-long pieces, also had to be carried in, assembled and secured with guy wires through the thick forest.

“It wasn’t easy to build the tower, but the data we’re collecting is worth the effort,” said Wenguang Zhao, another researcher on the project. “At (an international) conference earlier this year, some of our colleagues from around the world looked at our research and validated that this tower is producing meaningful and unique data that could help improve the computer models used to study things like climate change.”

The tower is one of two in the world that are trying to take carbon measurements in mountainous terrain that’s so varied and complex.

It’s relatively easy to measure carbon and other atmospheric factors on level surfaces, and towers on the high desert of Southern Idaho take those measurements.

But trying to read the atmosphere in mountainous areas is much trickier – air rises and sinks along the slopes as temperatures change, and carbon and water vapor move as it does so.

The tower project, along with ground-level measurements at individual trees, should help scientists gauge these changes more accurately.

Eventually, the results could help scientists make more accurate predictions of future climate change.

The movement of carbon is of particular interest. Accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from such sources as automobiles and industrial emissions is contributing to the warming of the planet, most scientists agree.

Qualls said it’s uncertain how much the large forested areas with many plant types might take in carbon, offsetting atmospheric concentrations – trees take in carbon, but they also release a little, mostly through the roots. Measuring carbon on the ground, with individual trees, and at the top of the tower will help scientists quantify carbon’s presence more precisely.

Qualls said the carbon measurements could be important to people who differ on the impact of global warming. It could provide more precise estimates for the effect that carbon has on driving up Earth’s temperatures, but it could also suggest that forests have a larger impact on overall carbon than now known, providing the possibility that reforesting some areas affect overall climate change.

“Certainly, carbon is one of the central forces with regard to what may or may not happen with future climate change,” he said. “From both perspectives, knowing the carbon intake is an important scientific discovery.”