I’m Andrew Richardson and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
It was ten years ago that we first put a networked, digital camera – a “webcam” – on one of our research towers. For a couple of years, we had been making measurements of the “breathing” of the forest – the daily and seasonal rhythms of carbon dioxide exchange between the ecosystem and the atmosphere – from the top of a 90-foot tower we had built in the Bartlett Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But it was clear there were a lot of other things we could be measuring to better understand how the ecosystem “worked”.
At a project meeting in 2005, one of my collaborators suggested we put a camera on the tower. The idea was that we’d get really neat pictures of the forest canopy through the seasons, which we could use when we gave talks at scientific meetings. And, we figured we could probably tell when the leaves came out and when they fell off – which would be important for estimating the growing season length. That, we figured, was an important factor affecting ecosystem productivity. We also joked that we no longer had to make the 2 hour drive to our field site with worries about whether our tower was still standing straight! So, within a few weeks we had installed what was then a state-of-the-art camera, beaming pictures from the top of the tower to a server back on campus. I didn’t have to leave my desk in Durham to see what the view was like. It was incredible!
Fast forward 8 months – summer 2006, and I asked a PhD student at the University of New Hampshire (who was already an expert in processing satellite remote sensing images) whether he could extract any quantitative data on spring “green-up” from the images. Within a few days, he had written a short computer program to do the analysis, and we were amazed – it was a major “a-ha!” moment. The green-up signal was so clear and well-defined, we could see the whole trajectory – and how it changed daily – from dormancy through leaf out and canopy development. That autumn, we found there was a beautiful signal of leaf coloring and drop, as well.
I pretty quickly realized the potential, and in less than a year had acquired seed funding to start a small camera-based network to observe forest phenology across northern New England and adjacent Canada. That was 2007. We got funding from the National Science Foundation in 2011 to expand our monitoring network to North America. And, in 2013 we got more funding from the National Science Foundation to involve citizen scientists in the interpretation and analysis of the imagery – hence the birth of Season Spotter!
Back in 2005, I had no idea that within a decade we’d be have an automated network for tracking phenology at over 200 sites across North America – which we now call the PhenoCam network. These kinds of surprises help make being a scientist pretty cool and a lot of fun. Every day brings something new!