How a tree in Central Mass. is using Twitter to share climate change data

Here’s a new take on that old question about a tree in a forest: If a tree tweets in a forest, how many followers will it have?

If it’s a 100-year old red oak in the Central Massachusetts town of Petersham, the answer is more than 6,500

This is not a joke.

Harvard scientists have wired a tree and connected it online so it can relay climate change data to people around the world.

So, what does the tree tweet about?  During a recent heatwave, it sent out a tweet that temperature that day had made it the 24th hottest day in the tree’s existence.

Another time, it described how its bark responded to a rainy spell of weather.

Clarisse Hart, the director of education and outreach for the Harvard Forest, explained “We can learn from this tree about how you can respond to change over time.  We can look at this tree and we can look at how things are changing, and then we can see how it's responding.”

Tim Rademacher, a post-doctoral research fellow at the forest, covered the tree with sensors, wires, and digital cameras.  Pointing at one of the devices, he added, “It tells me how much the tree has grown, how much it has shrunk, or literally how much it has swollen during a particular time period.”

Outfitting the tree with tech hardware that gathers all kinds of information about how the tree responds to environmental changes was the first stage of this project.

The next step was to create a computer program to allow that data to be converted into tweets that the tree can decide to send out from its account, @awitnesstree.

Rademacher set the system up so data could be analyzed every five minutes. “When certain conditions are triggered, it then grabs a pre-formulated message from a spreadsheet . . .  and it takes the message and then just tweets it automatically.”

The scientists say this project isn’t a gimmick, that they’re able to gather useful information for their research while connecting with people at the same time.

“The beauty of science is making the invisible visible, and with these sensors and the Twitter bot behind it, we want to make the invisible visible to a larger audience,” said Rademacher.

Hart added, “We are trying to develop kits that can be sent to school groups or cities so they can set up their own witness tree, so there can be trees all over the place that are tweeting about their lives, and their changes, over time.”

A vision that gives an unassuming part of our landscape a chance to be heard.

Climate change is on the minds of a lot of people, too. Tuesday at 9 p.m., the Boston 25 News Weather Team will present an in-depth special "Climate Matters."

Our meteorologists are talking to local researchers about the possible threats to New England related and what's being done to prepare the region for an uncertain future.

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