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From Bears To Weeds and Penguins

Researchers Harness Space-Age Tool for Ecosystem Studies

By Evelyn Boswell

GPS technology helps Lisa Graumlich, (right) director of the Mountain Research Center, study tree rings.
Some people worry about not seeing the forest for the trees. Then there are others who see trees as the windows to the forests, portals to the world's natural history.

Lisa Graumlich, for example, can bore into a Big Sky tree and see what the climate was like between 77 B.C. and A.D. 1450. She can help fill in the blanks in our understanding of global climate by examining a Yellowstone tree that lived in A.D. 1000.

"We use tree rings to study how forests will respond to climate change," said Graumlich, an environmental scientist and director of the Mountain Research Center at Montana State University-Bozeman.

To inspect those rings, Graumlich's tools include everything from tape measures and hollow bit drills to digital cameras and remotely sensed images. She, like a growing number of MSU researchers, also uses the Global Positioning System (GPS). Even before President Clinton signed the order that stopped scrambling satellite signals for civilians, an increasing number of MSU scientists were turning to GPS.

GPS uses a network of 24 satellites to calculate position, velocity and time. GPS works anywhere and any time and is being used at MSU to study bears and bison, weeds and trees, penguins and ecosystems.

"A number of things that came out of space technology have had useful application for civilians. GPS is one of those," said Chuck Schwartz, head of the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team based at MSU.

"The real challenge for us as scientists is 'How do we use this?'" Graumlich added.

Scientists like Graumlich are contemplating the potential of GPS technology. Is GPS primarily a way to save manpower and time in the field, or will it allow scientists to ask new kinds of questions? Will it lead to a better understanding of entire ecosystems? Will it foster teamwork and greater cooperation between disciplines?

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