E&ES Seniors Conduct Capstone Research at Wesleyan’s Long Lane Forest

EES capstone

During the Earth and Environmental Sciences Senior Field Research Project presentations on March 19, Phil Resor, professor of earth and environmental sciences, showed a map of Wesleyan’s Long Lane Forest. Here, three student groups spent the past semester studying the vegetation soils on the property; how the forest changed over time using historical imagery; and how the groundwater underneath the forest interacts with precipitation on the surface.

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Students and faculty from the E&ES497 class gather on the Long Lane field property near the forest.

Ten students majoring in earth and environmental sciences (E&ES) have completed their senior capstone projects.

Each year, seniors in the major embark on a capstone experience that starts with a seminar in the fall (E&ES497) in which students design an original research project, go on a field trip to carry out the research and complete their fieldwork, and then analyze their results and present them in written reports and oral presentations. In past years, students have ventured across the globe for their field trips. However, the pandemic caused this year’s projects to look a little different. This time, the field trips took place in a spot nearer and dearer to their hearts—Wesleyan’s Long Lane Forest, which is just a half-mile west from the heart of campus.

In the fall, students studied forests similar to Long Lane Forest and the larger environmental questions that these forests could address. Several researchers from all over the world visited the class via Zoom to share insights on their own research and the forests they had studied. The class generated ideas of how they could do similar things in their own forests. From those ideas, three projects were born.

Vegetation Group: “Carbon Storage and Potential for Emissions Offset in the Long Lane Forest”

Thomas Davoren ’21, Rebecca Downer ’21, Terra Ganey ’21, and Andrew Hennessy ’21 sought to quantify carbon in Long Lane Forest. They documented the carbon sequestered in the forest, using a combination of fieldwork, laboratory work, and forest analysis.

Their project establishes a baseline for calculating “carbon sink” potential of the forest in future years and its potential contribution toward meeting Wesleyan’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality for all greenhouse gas emissions before 2035.

“One strategy to offset carbon emissions is to preserve forests and to increase tree planting, and this is because forests can store carbon in various different pools,” Downer said.

The group recommended that the University reduce travel as much as possible to increase the likelihood that the forest produces enough carbon to offset its emissions, and perhaps more important, to convert the underdeveloped land around the University into forests, which would increase the amount of carbon that the campus landscape stores every year.

Terra Ganey ’21

Terra Ganey ’21 explained that the Long Lane Forest is actually “a very young forest” and was previously used for agricultural purposes. It didn’t return to a forest state until the late 1970s, as seen in these aerial photos. “A young forest might bode well for future carbon storage,” Ganey said. “The composition of both the tree and understory species at Long Lane is pretty typical for an early-stage New England hardwood forest, so we would expect that more potential for growth implies more potential for carbon sequestration.”

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The vegetation group prepares to stake areas near the Long Lane Forest.

Mapping Group: “Developing a Canopy Height Model to Determine Spatio-Temporal Forest Structure and Biomass Changes of the Wesleyan Long Lane Forest from 1981–2020”

Yuke Kirana ’21, Xavier Lopez ’21, and Kush Puri ’21 investigated how the forest height and biomass of the Long Lane Forest has changed in the past 39 years. They used novel remote sensing techniques (LiDAR, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stereo aerial photography) to carry out their research, modeling how the forest has grown over the last 50 years.

The group found that between 2005 and 2020, there has been a gradual slowing of carbon accumulation as the forest ages.

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Xavier Lopez ’21 surveys the location of a vegetation plot using a high-precision GPS.

Xavier Lopez ’21 collects soil in the Long Lane Forest for a carbon percentage study. (Photo by Phil Resor) 

Lopez helped the Vegetation Group collect soil in the Long Lane Forest. (Photo by Phil Resor)

Kush Puri ’21

Kush Puri ’21 displayed a canopy height timeline model of the Long Lane Forest property. Gray represents ground level and light green/yellow represents vegetation growth. “Initially we thought the height (indicated by yellow in the images) in the middle portion was an anomaly, but looking back at the historical photos [shows that] these trees were at the edge of the pasture and they’ve actually [not been] cut down, so as a result these are some of the oldest in the entire forest.”

Hydrology Group: “Characterizing the Aquifer Beneath Wesleyan’s Long Lane Forest to Understand the Relationship Between Groundwater and Precipitation”

Phia Bellizzi ’21, Cole Reistrup ’21, and Timothy Yen ’21 tested how groundwater—the water found in aquifers below the earth’s surface that is essential for domestic and irrigation water, providing nutrients to ecosystems, and helping to maintain lakes, rivers, and wetlands—responds to precipitation.

“With climate change, average global temperatures are rising. Due to this, different regions are responding to this change in different ways, specifically in the northeastern region of the U.S. [where] precipitation levels are becoming less frequent, but . . . much more intense,” Bellizzi said. “Increased rainfall intensity reduces overall infiltration of soils and creates greater runoff to nearby streams . . . and a decrease in groundwater can lead to many negative effects on the environment, society, and the economy.”

To understand whether lower aquifer “recharge” rates were affecting the ecology of the forest at Long Lane, the students plotted historical monitoring well data, analyzed groundwater and precipitation data, performed slug tests, and collected water table data over the winter break.

Although their results were inconclusive as to how groundwater responds to different types of precipitation events, they did conclude that faster groundwater flow rates at lower elevations might make those areas more susceptible to potential contamination.

Phia Bellizzi ’21,

Phia Bellizzi ’21 explained where the monitoring wells were located for their study.

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The Hydrology Group downloads historic data while working in the field with Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Peter Patton, Alan M. Dachs Professor of Science, Emeritus; and Joel Labella, E&ES facility manager.