Published September 27, 2018 by Adam DePaz '18

Margaret Conley '18 Continues Harvard Forest Study

"The goal of the study is to better understand what climate scientists call carbon sink in the terrestrial biosphere"

Margaret Conley '18
Margaret Conley '18

In 2006, Professor Mark Battle and colleagues built a proprietary data collection system to place in the Harvard Forest. The Harvard Forest, in central Massachusetts, is a private facility endowed by Harvard University for use by scientists interested in a range of fields from atmospheric chemistry to entomology.

Professor's Battle's study uses air sample collection to measure carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the Forest's atmosphere over time. The ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen varies with natural processes of the forest ecosystem like photosynthesis, respiration. As such the atmospheric ratios differ depending on the processes in the plants at a given location. Thus, the data Professor Battle and his students collect can help determine how much carbon dioxide is being consumed by the forests, i.e., sinking into the terrestrial biosphere, as opposed to sinking into the ocean.

As the study has progressed, Professor Battle has taken on a number of students to assist in data collection and processing. Margaret Conley '18 made this work the focus of her honors project, which culminated in the production of a paper and a research presentation.

"Because the ocean absorbs CO2 differently than the terrestrial biosphere; knowing the ratio allows you to calculate the two types of sink separately"

In order to more accurately interpret the mass of data collected over 12 years, Conley made use of an application produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called highsplit:

"The highsplit allows us to trace where the air came from: we can track the path of a parcel of air backward through time"

By tracing the path of air entering the forest, Conley can compare and contrast the impacts of local and long-distance air exchanges; air traveling through different locations will have different effects on CO2 concentration in the forest. Conley says her typical day working on the project includes "graphing things, using Matlab, splitting up the data into manageable chunks and designing simple models to determine the relative importance of air source and local exchange".