UNH to oversee 5-year ecosystem, land use project

Posted April 01, 2012, at 8:23 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — A new research project aimed at helping New Hampshire protect its quality of life will rely on everything from a state-of-the-art aircraft imaging system to students measuring snow on the ground.

With a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the University of New Hampshire will lead a research and education project to explore the state’s forests and waterways, the services that use these natural resources, and how land and water are affected by use and climate changes.

The goal is to help policy makers make better land use decisions, while also increasing interest in science and technology among young people and preparing young researchers for high-tech careers. Officials hope to also spur economic development as local companies create new products to help in the research.

Clean air and water are the foundation of any community’s quality of life, but often are taken for granted and are at risk, said Cameron Wake, an associate professor at UNH’s Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

Findings from the five-year project should help the state make decisions when faced with hard choices, such as cutting down trees for fiber and fuel versus preserving forests for clean water and air and recreational opportunities, said Wake, a project leader.

Besides UNH, partners in the project include Dartmouth College, Plymouth State University and Saint Anselm College. These institutions already have ecosystem experts, but have not coordinated their work.

“It’s good work, but it’s isolated work,” Wake said. “It’s really important to try to bring all this information together.”

The project, still in its early stages, will combine multiple academic disciplines. Economists will get information from forest scientists, for instance, and environmental data will be combined with housing and demographic data.

One research project might coordinate study of the reflectivity of snow cover with work done by other groups that have discovered that nutrients in soil change the color, and reflectivity, of forest foliage.

UNH has been studying for years how much sun is reflected by snowfall as the Northeast experiences warmer winters. Both groups realized in planning for the project that they could work together because they are measuring essentially the same thing, Wake said.

The core group of researchers will work with trained volunteers, including high school and community college students, to collect the data, which could help with land management. For example, the state might consider encouraging more agricultural fields because that kind of landscape would be covered by snow in the winter.

Other groups, such as 4-H organizations and the Seacoast Science Center, will use the data to develop educational lessons for children. Middle school teachers also can attend workshops run by project leaders to come up with school lessons.

Keene State College, Great Bay Community College, White Mountains Community College and UNH Cooperative Extension will lead the education and outreach components of the project.

“We impact that next generation of scientists who are going to be trained in this field, first by exciting our K-12 students to pursue research in college and graduate school,” said Gordon Leversee, dean of Sciences and Social Sciences at Keene State. “We realize science is not a spectator sport. Students learn science by doing it. We think they learn better when science is all around them, the way it will be in this project.”

Keene State also will be participating in the research, through a new faculty position in its environmental studies department, he said. The project will give undergraduate students important experience not only in conducting research but presenting their work.

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