Prof. monitors climate with roof- top camera

by Beacon Staff • October 4, 2011

strongJackie Tempera, Beacon Correspondent/strong

Every weekday morning, assistant professor Wyatt Oswald walks from North Station to Boylston Street, carefully observing the greenery around him.

“I like to check up on my trees and see how they’re doing,” said Oswald, who teaches in the communication sciences and disorders department.

As part of an experiment observing climate and seasonal changes, Oswald placed a digital camera, known as a PhenoCam, on top of the Walker building last May. The camera tracks phenological changes, which are seasonal phenomena related to climate and plant life, and will remain fixed on Boston Common for the next 50 years.

“I decided to take on this project because in my main research I am interested in how ecosystems respond to climate change,” said Oswald. “I wanted to explore this question in the urban ecosystem I walk through every day.”

According to the website that has a live stream of recent photos from PhenoCams, scientists initiated the network of cameras to keep track of seasonal changes across New England, upstate New York and Canada. The project now includes 90 cameras across the globe.

In order to keep track, the project team, led by Andrew Richardson of Harvard University, installed high-resolution web cameras at over a dozen sites throughout the region. Each camera takes a still photo every half hour and uploads it to the website. The images are then archived for further analysis.

According to Oswald, the amount of green pixels in each photograph indicates to the team whether or not the climate is changing.

Oswald became affiliated with the project through Richardson, who is a friend of his.

“I asked him if I could be a part of it and I was able to get funding through an Emerson fund for faculty research,” said Oswald.

Oswald’s camera records the trees on Boston Common from the Boylston T stop all the way to the State House. He said the location of his camera in the experiment is unique because it is one of the only cameras set to observe an urban ecosystem.

The camera can be seen when standing next to the Boylston T stop, looking up at the roof of the Walker Building.

“Look at that big box and you see the little cowboy hat looking thing, right next to that is a little white door. The camera is inside of that,” said Oswald.

Students are not allowed on the top of the Walker Building, Oswald said, but he allowed students in his “People and Plants” class to participate in his project by making weekly trips to the Common to observe the budding trees.

According to Oswald, over time the camera will show how the ecosystem is actually growing warmer every year by observing what date the trees begin to green.

“My hypothesis is that, as the planet warms in coming decades, the green-up that takes place as trees put on the leaves will progressively take place earlier,” he said. “For example, lets say the trees begin to green on April 20 this year. In five years, they may start on April 15th.”

Oswald said this change could make a difference on a global scale because trees are an important part of every ecosystem.

Junior Justin Reis, a previous student of Oswald’s, said that he remembered Oswald talking about the camera in his class over a year ago.

“It was something he seemed really passionate about,” the marketing communication major said. “I think it’s a cool idea and takes on a perspective that a lot of Emerson students haven’t really thought about before.”

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