The University Record, July 22, 1998

Biological Station tracks atmospheric, earth change

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Nearly 500,000 acres in Florida have been burned so far this year in forest fires that have kept firefighters on exhausting shifts and thousands of residents of one of America's playground states in evacuation shelters and praying for rain. With five months still left in the year, the loss is second only to the 1989 fires, which claimed 645,000 acres--an area that would encompass all of Washtenaw County and about one-third of Wayne County. Florida's dry season has lasted more than a month longer than normal this year.

Fire also claimed more than 17,000 acres in Brazil this spring and an unprecedented drought is blamed for blazes in Indonesia that precipitated a nearly 10,000-acre loss.

Tornado alerts have sounded more often and in less prepared areas of the Southeast and Midwest through the late spring and early summer.

Flooding in the Southeast last week resulted in disaster flood warnings in Tennessee, which received as much as 10 inches of rain.

Dramatic, disastrous natural events have been blamed this year on El Niño, the shift in weather patterns that has occurred regularly on Earth for years.

While El Niño may indeed be partly to blame, James A. Teeri, director of the Biological Station near Pellston, says that this year's weather phenomena were more noticeable than those in the past. He speculates that the intensity of this year's weather anomalies may be attributed to global changes that are taking place as a result of human activity on the planet.

Studying those changes in the atmosphere and distributing research results to federal and world leaders so that they can make policy decisions are what Teeri and his colleagues accomplish at the Biological Station.

Projects that focus on the ozone layer and global warming, on measuring atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) and determining its effect on plants and animals, on tracking the acidity of precipitation, and on the increase in ultraviolet radiation are carried out at the 10,000-acre facility.

Funding for much of the research comes from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U-M and more than 20 other institutions will study data collected at the Biological Station's AmeriFlux and PROPHET towers. Sensors on the Ameriflux tower measure the exchange of CO2 between the local ecosystem and the atmosphere, and the PROPHET tower continuously measures ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and aerosol particulates in the atmosphere.

"We have everything we need right here," Teeri says. The Station was chosen to host the AmeriFlux tower because of its position in Michigan on the border between the state's deciduous hardwoods and the more northern boreal, or spruce forests. The tower began recording data this month.

"We are in a unique position to be able to take the pulse of the forest," Teeri says. The Station is the only place in the world where both the Ameriflux tower and the PROPHET system are side by side and can measure meteorological changes as well as the breath of the forests.

CO2 is likely to be a major culprit in the warming of the Earth. Human activity, particularly the use of fossil fuels, has become a major suspect in the production of increased CO2. A worldwide conference in Kyoto last fall proposed standards for reducing CO2 production by the year 2000 for the 150 countries that participated in the conference.

But, says Teeri, a single molecule of CO2 has a lifespan in the atmosphere of from 50 to 200 years. Therefore, the carbon dioxide that has already been released into the atmosphere will not dissipate until well into the next century.

"To significantly reduce atmospheric CO2 would require a huge reduction in the amount produced by humans," Teeri says. "So even if we do the most drastic reduction we can visualize, there will still be a doubling of carbon dioxide emissions, and probably we'll see it triple.

"That has never happened before. Much of our research now is not to try to prevent, but to learn how we can prepare for and live with the effects it will have."

To that end, some of the research at the Biological Station involves how plants will grow in an atmosphere that contains increased CO2, and how the animals that feed on the plants will process that food.

As the blanket of atmosphere that covers the Earth keeps more of the heat in and temperatures begin to rise, as increased CO2 requires that plants adapt, as developing countries become more adept at industrialization and as the Earth's population continues to climb, Teeri says his job is to make what is happening or will happen understandable to the public and to governments.

"We suspect that there may be some very major climate effects. The circumstantial evidence of the effect human activity has on the planet is building," Teeri says. If industrialization of developing countries were to continue until all were at the same state of development as the United States, "it would require the combined total natural resources of three planet Earths." Alternatives to fossil fuels and energy consumption and a way to sustain resources is critical, he says.

"We need to start turning this supertanker around."