University of Freiburg: Sensor network in the forest to improve forecasts of climate change impacts

The German Research Foundation (DFG) will fund the Collaborative Research Center CRC 1537 “ECOSENSE” from July 1, 2022. The SFB will receive about 10.5 million euros over four years for its interdisciplinary, detailed research on ecosystem processes in forests.

The team led by CRC spokespersons Prof. Dr. Ulrike Wallrabe, Professor of Microactuators at the Institute of Microsystems Engineering, and Prof. Dr. Christiane Werner, Professor of Ecosystem Physiology at the Institute of Institute of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Freiburg, would like to be able to more precisely and quickly detect and predict critical changes in the forest ecosystem – which are occurring as a result of climate change.

Sensor network sends measurement data to database in real time
To do so, the CRC is developing an autonomous, intelligent sensor network based on novel microsensors. Tailored to harsh forest environments, these will measure the spatio-temporal dynamics of ecosystem states and fluxes in a natural, complex-structured forest in a minimally invasive manner. “The measurement data will be transferred in real time to a sophisticated database and will be immediately available for process analysis, deep learning and improved simulation models for short- and medium-term predictions,” Wallrabe explains. “Currently, there is a lack of suitable measurement, data and modeling tools for comprehensive quantification of change processes in real time at the highest spatio-temporal resolution. That’s where we come in and develop mobile, easily deployable systems.”

Impacts of climate change on complex forest ecosystems are largely unexplored
“Climate change is threatening forest ecosystems worldwide, which serve an important regulatory function in the climate system as carbon reservoirs. The impacts on complex forest ecosystems with their multiple processes and interactions between soil, plant and atmosphere are largely unexplored. Future changes are therefore hardly predictable,” Werner explains. “Improved process understanding of carbon and water cycles is imperative for accurate predictions of climate change impacts on our forests.”

The two CRC spokespersons Werner and Wallrabe are convinced: “The ECOSENSE toolkit, validated under controlled climate stress experiments and in our ECOSENSE forest, will enable a rapid assessment of any ecosystem in the future; even in remote areas.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration between the University of Freiburg and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
The research group is composed of scientists from various research areas: Freiburg researchers from six professorships of the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources and six professorships of the Institute for Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) and the Institute for Sustainable Technical Systems (INATECH) are involved. “This means that two large departments are equally involved in this project,” says Wallrabe. As part of the CRC, the Freiburg researchers are collaborating with the Institute for Microstructure Technology and the Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

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