Why?

The Virtual Forest project gives everyone the opportunity to track the seasons through telepresence. It allows for leaf peeping from a distance and visualizes ecological processes for those who find access to green spaces difficult. The images gathered will also support research efforts in understanding the timing of changes to the canopy structure. Above all, we hope Virtual Forest will inspire people to venture outdoors and explore a forest in real life.

What?

Virtual Forest allows you to immersively track the seasons using 360 degree photography of the experimental forest plot at Gontrode, Belgium. Media can be viewed immersively using a Google Cardboard or similar.

Who?

Virtual Forest is a project of Koen Hufkens and BlueGreen Labs supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action, Ghent University and France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment. My research focuses on understanding the relation between climate (change) and seasonal variability in vegetation growth. I’m a maker, software developer and interested in combining ecological research with emerging technologies. For more projects follow BlueGreen Labs on twitter.

The Science

Sesasonal changes in plants as recorded by the Virtual Forest project are referred to as plant phenology. Plant phenological processes are highly responsive to year-to-year variation in weather as well as longer-term changes in climate. This sensitivity to short and long-term changes makes phenology a key indicator of the biological impacts of global change. But, phenology also plays an under-appreciated role in how ecosystem influence the atmosphere by absorbing carbon through photosynthesis. By influencing the seasonality of plant carbon uptake and transpiration (carbon loss), phenology mediates many vegetation feedbacks to the Earth system. Virtual Forest provides data with which will advance understanding of the fundamental importance of phenology as both a leading indicator of the biological impacts of global change, and as a critical factor in regulating feedbacks between terrestrial ecosystems and the Earth system.

Acknowledgements

Throughout the years I’ve been indebted to the Harvard Forest staff for helping me with practical issues and the hosting arrangement (version 1) and the ForNaLab at Ghent University (version 2). Virtual Forest or related data was in part funded through the National Science Foundation’s Macro-system Biology Program (award EF-1065029) and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (grant 797668).