Not many in India would have heard of Hubbard Brook which, in fact, is an experimental forest. It is a massive slice of forest of 7800 acres in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the US. While the forest has been there since perhaps the beginning of time the experimental forest came about around 63 year ago. Located in its own little valley, forested with beeches, birches, sugar maple and what have you it has spectacular cobalt blue skies and clear streams that run down to a mirror-like lake. Sounds just like heaven on earth.
While it is indeed so, a large variety of experiments are also conducted here. With as many as five dozen collaborators working on numerous projects that are generally about learning and monitoring the flow of nutrients through the ecosystem, tracking animal population over time or learning the way the northern forests would react to drought or climate change, the Experimental Forest has been at the forefront of several crucial findings. Open to public the Forest has been basically a place of learning for more than sixty years.
As far back as in 1963 some scientists began to look at rain samples collected from the forest. They soon discovered that something was wrong. One of the samples that was collected was as acidic as vinegar and having almost its pH level. Later they found that the rain was acidic and eventually their findings revealed the first instance of acid rain that was traced to industrial pollution. It was the first documentation of acid rain in America that led to the amendment to the Clean Air Act by George Bush to specifically address the dangers of acid rain. Since then scientists have monitored water and air quality and several other variables accumulating continuous date over decades making the Experimental Forest very valuable from a scientific perspective.
The site manager Ian Halm says data of a year or two might be important but it is the long term data over decades that give a clearer picture to gauge what we, humans, are doing to the environment. Earlier, he says, when he started it was all manual work with “strip charts and charts on drums”. He goes on to say that “now it is all electronic. Every hour data is wirelessly uploaded to the headquarters”. If something goes wrong Halm says he knows immediately. Every morning his team checks out the computer screens and ensures things are normal in the forest. Earlier, in the event of something going wrong one had to hike up to the spot to check things out. Now, however, if one happened to visit the Experimental Forest one would find some mysterious things like trees dotted with tiny metal tags that “jingle like collars of a pack of dogs” but they presumably transmit data.
Among about 60 scientists working in Hubbard Brook there is one from the University of Boston - Dr. Pamela Templer. Her team uses snow shovels and heating cables to study another important long term trend that may be affecting the forests and that is climate change. She said the idea was to create conditions that the forests are likely to encounter in the future. Her studies have predicted that the North East of US may warm up by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit which would mean a warmer growing season and less winter snow. By using the buried cables like underground space heaters to warm the soil and by manually clearing the overground snow Templer is “simulating warmer future world”.
According to Templer, “Forests provide a whole suite of wonderful resources for us, including clean water, clean air, habitat for animals and plants. We need to know how they might change in the future if we want to preserve and manage them. Whether through logging, urbanization and climate change humans have been making an impact. Now we need to understand the true extent of it, and the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is one place to find out”.
One wonders whether such experimental forests have been created in this country where trees and forests are apparently not priority areas for the governments in these days of climate change, violent weather, rising temperatures, and droughts.