How often do an industrial thermal camera and spectroradiometer end up in the hold of a Greyhound bus? The summer has come, and I am back in the Rockies for another summer field season focused on how alpine plant communities respond to climate change. Traveling with heavy research equipment is never easy, but after a full two-day journey by air, bus, and truck, everything is safe and ready for data collection.
The beauty of these mountains makes up for all of the challenges of the work. Every year that I arrive here, I am filled with a sense of joy and wonder for the place. There is still snow covering the high peaks, and the rivers are swollen with snowmelt. But while it may still be late winter up high, the valleys are full of life, with stands of green and white quaking aspen painting the landscape.
My work occurs primarily at high elevation, and one of the first things I did after arriving was go on a hike to scout out the snow line. My long-term research site is a few hundred meters above the snow in this photograph, so I’m lucky to have some extra time to get our equipment and protocols ready before the daily rigors of fieldwork truly begin.
This means getting all of the sensors up and running. I am using an industrial infrared camera to assess microclimate variation in plant communities. The camera can detect the blackbody radiation given off by warm and cold objects, and so determine the temperature of plants – something that may be highly important for growth and survival.
The main challenge is getting the camera in position to monitor the plants. With an international arrival by air I wasn’t able to travel with most of the equipment needed to do this, so the past few days have been filled with trips to hardware and lumber stores, building platforms that can support a heavy camera. But it all works now.
Here is one of the first images I took, with whiter colors corresponding to warmer plant temperatures. It is sharper and more beautiful than I imagined it was going to be, and it reveals a world of thermal ecology that was until now wholly hidden from me. In the coming days we will begin to learn much more about the lives of these plants, and the journey here will begin to yield its rewards.