Tanks labeled with their home institutions (from left: Toronto, UMass, Indiana, "on loan to UMBS" Indiana).

Say you’re walking along Douglas Lake Road in Pellston, Michigan mid-July. You come across a gravel path near a yellow outhouse and a small parking lot. There are cars with license plates from Ohio, Indiana, Colorado, Kansas, Florida, even the United States government.

Though this path takes you deeper into the forest, you catch inklings of something else going on. Tanks of oxygen. Plywood boxes draped with tarps and stenciled Property of Such-and-Such University. A great blue and yellow crane with a block M on it, tucked beneath a canopy. And finally, rounding a curve past the increasingly abundant equipment, you hear voices in the woods and the whir of machines. Soon you’re faced with a barbed-wire- topped chain-link fence which, for some reason, holds a sign that reads “Pig Crossing.” Behind it: a jungle of cords and shiny metal tubing, a tent set up with computer stations inside, and a massive metal tower stretching above it all.

No, you’re not at some weird alien spaceship/movie set/campsite hybrid. You have arrived at the University of Michigan Biological Station's PROPHET research site.

The PROPHET project (Program for Research on Oxidants: Photochemistry, Emissions and Transport) is a veritable medley of research -- about seventy people worked on the campaign and about thirty papers are expected to come of it. The intricacies of each group’s individual projects vary, but overall the project looks at how the biosphere interacts with the atmosphere, and what this may mean in a forest environment impacted by climate change.

Tremendous Synergy

According to Steve Bertman, PROPHET site coordinator and Western Michigan University faculty, this summer’s project was a follow-on to major research conducted at the Biological Station in 2009. It was an attempt to answer questions left over from the previous campaign. “The project is a loose consortium at best,” Bertman said, “but everyone recognizes there’s tremendous synergy. Many objectives would be difficult to achieve independently.”

Part of the challenge of atmospheric research is specialized, sensitive equipment, and so it may seem counterintuitive to have such a group studying in the middle of a rural forest. But Bertman considers this area to be quite well-suited to the project’s goals since the forests of northern Michigan are still in flux, recovering from early twentieth century logging and fires. And now they’re being impacted by our changing climate, too.

Steve Bertman

“The forests [at UMBS] are representative of a large area of the Midwest,” Bertman said. “So our results are relevant to a large portion of the country.” The PROPHET site and its surrounding forests are influenced by some unique factors, like large bodies of water and weather extremes. But the site isn’t influenced by some things typical of more urban areas, like direct emissions from human activity.

“It’s especially important for us to study places like this so we understand what chemistry in forests looks like without significant human influence,” said Sarah Kavassalis, a PhD student from the University of Toronto. The group from Toronto studied exchanges of nitrous oxides (NOx), a significant pollutant that’s both manmade and tree-made.

Andy Ault, a principal investigator and faculty representative from the University of Michigan, also sings his praises of the northern Michigan site, asserting that the 32-foot tower and research facility allows researchers to access the data they need, all the while remaining unobstructive to the surrounding forest.

Ault, left, prepares equipment in the PROPHET lab.

“The site lets us understand what’s happening in the real world in a way we can’t replicate in the lab,” Ault said. “Groups from all over the world are using cutting-edge, state-of-the-art instrumentation to be able to measure some of these processes in a direct way as we never have before.”

Minds from Different Places

By “all over the world,” Ault really means it. The project saw researchers from four different continents, eleven countries, and twenty institutions. This little pod in the woods, and the UMBS campus, housed scientists from across the US, Puerto Rico, Canada, the UK, France, Japan, China, India, South Korea and Australia.

“I’d have to say that’s my favorite part, all the different minds from all different places,” said Jake Nelson, Bertman’s research assistant from Western Michigan.

Nelson described going out to dinner with a group of international PROPHET researchers at the beginning of the session, where nobody at the table was from the same country.

Cramped, cabled interior of the PROPHET lab. Image credit Bob Berg, Michigan Creative.

“It was great to talk about the environments they grew up in or have seen. You don’t know of these environments because you’ve never traveled to them,” he said. Ault, Bertman and Kavassalis expressed similar sentiments, saying that the project’s operation was “harmonious,” “cooperative,” and a good educational experience.

“Having the opportunity to work with people who approach problems in a different way than I have been taught is how we make advances in the field and how, as individuals, we become better scientists,” Kavassalis said.

Though the group did experience occasional logistical problems like late shipments, international strikes, and hangups at US customs, all problems were overcome and groups worked together to ensure each other’s success. The campaign’s researchers differed in terms of nationality and academic positions but “as a whole, this group of people got on pretty darn well,” said Bertman. “These projects are inherently collaborative because we need each other.”