About four years ago I was lucky enough to get a chance to walk through a live science experiment.
BIFoR stands for Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and FACE stands for Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment.
The aim is to find out how a natural forest reacts and grows in conditions of elevated CO2. Predictions of CO2 levels around 2050 claim it could be 38% higher than present, so how do you plan for that and how do you find out what that will mean for the worlds forests.
This is what researchers are trying to find out at BIFor FACE. So they built an experimental data collection system inside a forest. But they didn't stop there. They built a facility that was inserted into a forest without any impact on that forest. A facility that will pump CO2 into areas of that forest to elevate the CO2 present by 38%. This meant a massive infrastructure project that had to built with minimal impact on the forest.
In fact once the experiment is complete the entire infrastructure will be removed without trace. Every element of the project sits in a non-invasive way on the forest floor. The arrays had to be built into the canopies without altering the trees in any way. The forest floor and roots systems could not be damaged. All of these things could affect the outcome of the experiment.
In addition there are three different elements to the experiment. One third has increased CO2 filtered into the trees, one has plain air filtered into the trees and the third area has nothing. All the trees are fitted with monitors to record every part of their growth from leaves to trunks.
The CO2 is used in such vast amounts that it is delivered by tankers to the edge of the forest and stored in tanks from where it is pumped throughout the forest.
In the ghost array, there are no induced changes made to the environment so that the tree growth can be measured, this is the control part of the experiment.
The release of CO2 into the canopies is highly controlled according to weather conditions so that the relevant area has a constant level of elevated CO2. This means wind direction and strength has to be constantly monitored so that different parts of the array around the selected area inject the CO2 according to the dispersion and how it is affected by outside weather.
This visit took place just a few months after the experiment became live.
The latest information.
The facility was "switched on" on 3rd April 2017, coinciding with the spring flush of the oak trees, crowning three years of careful planning, construction and testing. For four entire growing seasons, three 30-metre-wide plots of mature oak forest have been immersed in an atmosphere with elevated CO2 concentration, topped up from current values of just above 400 ppm (parts per million) to 550 ppm, a roughly 38% increase, which the entire globe is likely to see by 2050. The great news is the technology works and we have consistently achieved our performance targets throughout the last four years.
The BIFoR FACE facility will address the following fundamental questions regarding the ability of woodland to capture carbon dioxide:
Does elevated CO2 increase the carbon storage within a mature woodland ecosystem?
Do other macro- or micro-nutrients – i.e., nitrogen, phosphorus - limit the uptake of carbon in this ecosystem?
What aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem structure-and-function alter when the ecosystem is exposed to elevated CO2?
How can lessons from the global network of second-generation Forest FACE experiments be generalised to other woodlands and forests?