Motorists on Highway 182 last week may have glimpsed three men working to construct a small, science-fictionesque device in a field off the road. Measuring about 10 feet high, this gangly structure will soon be part of an international atmospheric research project slated to take place this summer.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project will build upon the nearly 30 years worth of atmospheric data gathered at the WLEF-TV tall tower, located about 10 miles east of Park Falls.
In a nod to its Wisconsin roots, the project has been dubbed CHEESEHEAD, an outlandishly lengthy acronym that stands for “Chequamegon Heterogeneous Ecosystem Energy-balance Study Enabled by a High-density Extensive Array of Detectors.” In the next few months, scientists and students from across the U.S. and Europe will gather here at data-collection ground zero in northern Price County.
Between the months of June and October, an extensive series of measurements will be taken, all with the aim of gathering a comprehensive understanding of how a variety of ecosystems and vegetation affect climate and the weather.
While similar projects have been done on a small scale in other parts of the world, this $4 million project will utilize cutting edge technology to gather readings from 19 sites in a 10x10 kilometer box surrounding the WLEF-TV tall tower — all joining together to become what may be the most intensive climate research at a single location over a short period of time.
While the tall tower gives scientists a snapshot of what is happening in one specific part of the region, each of the 19 data collections sites will build that picture. The 19 sites will be placed in a variety of ecosystems — pine stands, deciduous forests, bogs, marshes, lakes, fields, and young aspen stands — gathering data from each unique landscape.
Professor Ankur Desai is the project’s principal investigator — a fancy term for the lead scientist. Desai hails from UW-Madison’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences department and has been involved with the climate research at the tall tower for several years.
Despite the windy, chilly spring weather the small crew battled to set up the first of the data-collection sites, there was an apparent hum of excitement in the group as they prepared to launch what will be a benchmark research project.
“The long-term measurements [gathered at the tower] are interesting and they tell us how individual sites are changing,” said Desai. “But what we really want to get at is how the landscape as a whole is affecting climate. We will be measuring the atmosphere, the land surface, everything you need to really understand and improve the weather models we're now using for weather forecasting.”
Desai, who has been involved in climate research for much of his career, first got the idea for this project back in 2013.
While there are about 400 other sites around the world gathering atmospheric data similar to the WLEF-TV tower, this still leaves vast areas of land completely unstudied. This makes data comparison extremely difficult due to the variability in landscapes and conditions at each of the varying sites.
“I selected this area because I knew we could work here easily,” explained Desai. “One of the reasons we want to work here beyond it being a interesting, complex landscape is that this is a great community where we have a lot of support. We knew this was a feasible location to do this research.”
Building on the decades’ worth of data already gathered at the WFEL-TV tower, the additional measurements taken over this summer will help test a variety of hypotheses on how energy and water cycling work — deepening scientists’ understanding of these complex interactions between the land and atmosphere.
Due to the intensive review process required by the Natural Science Foundation in order to receive grant funding, Desai had to prove that the project was feasible, safe, and a scientifically interesting experiment, and his hypotheses underwent review ensure they were scientifically sound. The grant funding was finally received in 2018, allowing for the project to commence this summer.
In order to build the complex data set required to fully understand this small 10x10 kilometer area, a full team of people will pull together over the coming months, taking measurements with a variety of different focuses.
A team from UW-Madison’s forest ecology program will record standard data on the productivity of trees — tree diameter, species composition, etc. — in plots surrounding the towers.
The forest canopies will be measured by a UW-Milwaukee group, which will be taking detailed measurements of light, leaf growth, and temperature.
Scientists and grad students from the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center will use microwaves and laser pulses to measure the structure of the atmosphere, using sonar that bounces off invisible particles in the atmosphere.
A group from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany will bring a high-tech laser, weighing in at a hulking 10 tons, to the central site where it will be used to measure water vapors.
Each day, the National Center for Atmospheric Research will be deploying a weather balloon equip with high-end instruments that will measure the structure of the atmosphere — temperature, humidity, wind, etc.
Tapping into local resources, the project will also involve a group of students from Butternut High School science teacher Laurie Fox’s class. The teenagers have spent the past year learning to make fundamental measurements, which they will now take at the 19 sites on a weekly basis throughout the summer.
“That's a really exciting addition to the project because it's a measurement we didn't propose, we don't have a lot of funding for, but will help us solve a couple questions that were initially beyond the scope of the landscape,” said Desai.
Desai noted it is possible that the Chequamegon High School charter class may get involved as well.
James Mineau, a 2018 graduate of Chequamegon High School and a current freshman at UW-Madison, will also be assisting with the project.
In addition to the 19 physical sites, data will also be collected from the air via a series of flights over the area. The smallest aircraft will include drones flying through the forest to measure the temperature of vegetation, while UW-Madison Professor Grant Petty will fly his ultra-light aircraft (think a flying lawn chair, which looks as improbable as it sounds) just over the tops of the trees.
For three weeks — one in July, one in August, and one in September — an air crew from the University of Wyoming will be buzzing very low over the forestland in the area of the tower, gliding only about 300 feet over the ground.
Working with the Wisconsin DNR's air crew, measurements will also be taken from a higher altitude, flying about 6,000 feet off the ground.
The grand capper will be when NASA flies the International Space Station over this part of the globe in order to take measurements of water and carbon dioxide from space.
The sheer scope and cooperation of this project makes it unique, according to Desai, with about 40 scientists from a variety of disciplines arriving in the northwoods in the coming months.
“These people have done these types of measurements all over the world, but it is rare to bring them all into one spot,” he said. “This is going to be the most intensively measured 10x10 kilometer box ever for the atmosphere.”
On Monday, May 20, locals will get a chance to meet with Desai and a few of the other lead scientists on the CHEESEHEAD team. There will be a public presentation from 3:30-5 p.m. at the Park Falls Public Library where anyone interested is welcome to come and learn more about the project. Following the public presentation at the library, there will be an information Q&A session at the neighboring Park Falls Gastropub.
While it may be years before the data gathered right here in the backyard of the northwoods can effect change, there is no doubt it will provide new insights into humans’ understanding of the world.
“This experiment is building us benchmark data for how vegetation and the atmosphere interact in complex regions that people will be studying for decades,” said Desai.