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Scientists use NASA technology to measure the consequences of global climate change.
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OSU hydrologist John Selker measures climate change with the world's largest thermometer.

Who knew that technology developed for space would end up being the best tools to study ecosystems here on Earth? John Selker got it early on. As a professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, he’s been pioneering the use of NASA spinoffs like sensors, wireless, and fiber optics to measure both natural and managed earth-bound environments. His real mission now, he says, is to find new and better ways to apply these spiffy technologies in his own work, and for other researchers, educators, and information-providing businesses.

Lots of NASA technologies have been successfully commercialized, as in memory foam or Speedo Racers. But the ones used for environmental monitoring have wider ramifications, according to Selker.

fiber optic cable photo by Lynn Ketchum

And he sees urgency in measuring environmental change. With greenhouse gas levels rising, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are changing in ways that vary unpredictably. But until recently, the high cost of field sensors made it difficult to track these changes. Measuring more than one thing in more than one place at a time was a vast and spendy challenge. The new environmental monitoring systems make it possible to track various factors at play and to figure out how one thing affects another.

Selker started out by using fiber optics to measure water temperature over long distances (such as the length of a river). This technology—called distributed temperature sensing (DTS)—uses the same sort of fiber optic communication cables that make your telephone work. Temperatures are measured at one-meter intervals over several miles. An intense laser pulse is sent down the cable and temperatures are computed from the light that bounces back. The warmer the fiber, the more blue-shifted light returns.

splicing fiber optics
OSU graduate students Julie Gabrielli (foreground) and Aida Arik place a fiber optic cable into Big Boulder Creek to measure water temperature all along this tributary of the Middle Fork of the John Day River.

“It’s like listening for the echoes,” Selker said.

With distributed temperature sensing, scientists can track tiny changes in temperature, as small as one hundredth of one degree Celsius. If you consider this amount of precision and the huge number of points that can be monitored, DTS provides something like 10,000 times the resolution possible a few years ago, according to Selker.

Another NASA innovation has improved the ability for scientists to collect all those measurements without walking from sensor to sensor in rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Using networks of radio-linked stations, data from sensors can now be gathered remotely. These stations don’t cost much to buy or to run, and they can send signals over long distances, pumping out quality data that can be updated as they are received.

The sensors themselves are smaller, work better, and are much less expensive than ever before, according to Selker. He uses cameras and microphones and infrared thermopiles (originally developed for electronic ear thermometers).

laying fiber optic cable
Chances are, fiber optics power your telephone, your TV, and your Internet connection. John Selker has adapted this same technology to take the pulse of rivers, forests, and mountains. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Applying these new tools, Selker has joined other scientists to measure the nighttime respiration of forests in the Cascade Mountains, snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada, water quality in Lake Tahoe, contaminated water in the Czech Republic, and glacial melt in the Swiss Alps. He’s also looked at the success of salmon habitat restoration efforts in the John Day and Walla Walla rivers.

“The strongly collaborative community of scientists at OSU puts us leagues ahead in these cross-disciplinary efforts,” said Selker, noting the expertise in both systems ecology and the new technologies. He lights up when he talks about helping other researchers figure these systems out. “There’s a lot of new cool stuff available,” he said, “stuff that’s guaranteed to help researchers learn how earth systems are changing.”

For more information about John Selker's work in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, see the "Wired Watershed" article in OSU's Terra magazine.

Published in: Innovations