• Part of a panoramic image of the National Arboretum by Tim Brown (Supplied)Source: Supplied
An Aussie scientist is setting up an international network of surveillance cameras to spy on trees and help us understand climate change.
Kemal Atlay

13 Apr 2016 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 15 Apr 2016 - 4:18 PM

Watching trees might sound like a boring endeavour, but there’s a group of scientists setting up a network of surveillance cameras who would disagree. Knowledge glimpsed from spying on trees could provide insights into the effects of climate change on forests.

Dr Tim Brown, an environmental modeling expert from the Australian National University’s Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, has launched the Australian Phenocam Network to collect huge amounts of time-lapse images to help climate scientists monitor Australian native forests.

“The goal of the Phenocam project is to have cameras that are all over Australia, monitoring the environment,” Brown told SBS Science. “When you have a network of a thousand cameras around the country or the world, you can just do much better science.”

Rapid advances in technology in recent years have made cameras and drones cheaper and more accessible, which means that researchers can now deploy networks of cameras to monitor vast areas of land.

“You can zoom in and see every single tree in the forest and where every flower comes out of the ground”

Brown has collaborated on similar networks in the US and Europe in the past, and has also developed a camera that can take gigapixel images – that’s a whopping one billion pixels.

“What that let’s you do is if you put one up on a hill, you can zoom in and see every single tree in the forest and where every flower comes out of the ground,” he says. “You scale from just having a few data points to having thousands of data points in your research site.”

The project’s goal is to allow climate scientists to access this data in order to monitor how climate change is affecting our native forests and to produce models to help predict both the frequency and severity of the types of rare weather events that are becoming increasingly common.

“A hundred years from now, trees and plants are going to be living in a climate that’s going to be completely different from the climate they were planted in,” says Brown.

“The current estimate is that by 2100, the climates in Australia will have shifted by 500 to 800 kilometres to the north, which means that Sydney is going to have a climate that’s more like Brisbane’s.

“Half of all eucalyptus species will be out of their native range, meaning that they’re going to be living somewhere that none of their genes are adapted for.”

A key advantage of the Phenocam project is that it not only complements data from satellite images, but also reduces reliance on using satellite images alone, since they can often be compromised by cloud cover. It’s also much easier for a scientist to control a camera on the ground than a camera in Earth’s orbit.

“Drones are really useful because they can give you this top-down satellite view but at millions of times higher resolution than you would get from a satellite,” says Brown.

He has also worked with computer science students from the ANU to construct programs to manage the large datasets, as well as to build a virtual reality version of the National Arboretum of Canberra.

“It’s a bit like Star Trek – researchers walking through a forest could use a tablet or augmented reality to view sensor data layered onto the actual trees.”

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