Collecting climate info on the Great Basin
As world leaders gathered in Paris for the two-week long United Nations Climate Conference, University of Nevada, Reno professor Franco Biondi quietly continued a project that he has been working on for years, and will likely continue for many more—tracking climate change in the Great Basin using a network of sensors and webcams.
In 2008, Biondi and a group of other scientists from the Universities of Nevada (Reno and Las Vegas) and the Desert Research Institute teamed up to create the Nevada Climate-ecohydrological Assessment Network (NevCAN), a system designed for collecting long-term climate data in remote Nevada mountain ranges. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the team installed 12 climate stations in the Snake and Sheep Ranges of eastern and southern Nevada.
“We wanted places that were going to remain as pristine as possible, and also be representative of the rest of the Great Basin,” Biondi said.
Each station is powered by solar panels, and consists of a webcam and sensors to measure snow, wind, rain, temperature, relative humidity, soil moisture, tree growth and more. By placing a series of monitoring stations up the mountain slopes, the NevCAN system allows researchers to observe changes that happen at different elevations and life zones, from the valley floor up to the ancient Bristlecone Pine forests that exist high in the Snake and Sheep ranges. This data is important because as global climate warms, scientists believe that species may begin to migrate to higher elevations where temperatures are cooler.
“We’re concerned about multiple changes that are happening in these ecosystems, from climate changes to changes in species distributions,” Biondi said. “Mostly we wanted to make sure we had data on these ecosystems to see how things change. There are very few long-term datasets in the Great Basin.”
Climate change happens slowly. So does climate research. It took about five years to develop the NevCAN system and install all of the sensors. Biondi said that all stations have been up-and-running since 2013, and they have now collected approximately three years of data. Though three years isn’t long enough to draw any meaningful climate trend conclusions, Biondi hopes that the growing data record will become more useful—and used—as time goes on.
“There are definitely patterns that need to be discovered,” Biondi said. “There is so much data. I wish we had more people actually using the data. We are using some of it, but there is so much that could be done.”
The network was built to last far into the future, said Biondi, aligning with the mission of one of their supporters, the Long Now Foundation that owns property in the Snake Range and allowed the NevCAN team to install monitoring stations there.
Long Now is best known for its ongoing effort to construct a clock that will last for 10,000 years inside a mountain in Texas. They’d like to do the same in the Snake Range, and are also discussing the possibility of building a field station on the site to house visiting NevCAN researchers.
In the future, Biondi hopes to link some of the NevCAN stations with other existing national-scale climate monitoring projects. Data and live video feed from the 12 webcams are publicly available on the project website.