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Expanding forest study with access to new research station


Two people working on a tower above a forest. Thomas O’Halloran and a former Sweet Briar student adjust meteorological instruments at the top of the 120-foot forest tower.

Feb. 15, 2016 – The college has increased its capacity to study forests and how such landscapes influence climate by adding Thomas O’Halloran to the forest resources faculty. O’Halloran, formerly of Sweet Briar College, brings access to the land-atmosphere research station he founded there. The move to Virginia Tech was facilitated by Assistant Professor Quinn Thomas, who began collaborating with O’Halloran at the site last year.

The research station features a 120-foot tower with an array of instruments to measure forest-atmosphere interactions across a 67-acre pine plantation. The two researchers are interested in similar questions and instrumentation but have different backgrounds — Thomas in ecosystem science and O’Halloran in meteorology — which they combine to study land-atmosphere interactions.

When it appeared that Sweet Briar would close, the project’s future was uncertain, so Virginia Tech stepped in. Now that the school remains open, work at the site continues as a collaboration between the two schools. “The site is busier than ever. I am pleased to see undergraduate and graduate students from both schools working together,” O’Halloran said.

The research station contributes to an international network of “flux towers” — sites that measure the exchanges of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and energy between the forest and the air above. “These sites are in many ecosystems across the globe, including large networks in the U.S., Europe, and China,” Thomas said. “No site is exactly like ours but a lot are similar so that we can contribute to research at the global scale.”

It will be another year before the first results are in. Meanwhile, in addition to gathering data, the research station continues to be a resource for graduate student projects and undergraduate classes at both schools from several disciplines, such as forest resources, environmental informatics, and meteorology.

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