When the weather’s nice enough, MU graduate student Abby Huffman heads out to the MU Baskett Research Center, about 5 miles east of Ashland. Hidden within the 2,266 acres of isolated forest, Huffman does everything from studying oak tree seedlings to measuring light availability.

“When I’m out there, just kind of by myself, I can see Baskett, and I can see in my head it would just be a great place to take classes,” Huffman said. “Because it’s different when you learn something in a book, and then when you can actually go out into a forest and see it happening.”

Huffman takes her daily measurements and observations to be analyzed, which help build a better picture of what’s going on in Columbia’s wild backyards.

The Baskett Center provides students and nature enthusiasts with an area, free from development, that can be observed and enjoyed. Baskett’s long history in research and ecology is evolving now that the Center has submitted proposals to expand its largest research project, a long-term study of the health of our region’s respiratory system.

Imagine standing on a cliff and looking out onto a forest. There’s the ground below, the atmosphere above and a thin layer of trees in the middle. Much like animals, the trees breathe — only they take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. The trees’ leaves change how the sunlight hits the surface below. The forest also filters rainwater.

Baskett stands out in a region where most land is developed for either farming or housing. The thickly forested center was reclaimed from land that European colonizers domesticated in the 19th century. In the mid-1930s, MU merged 17 farms to establish the research center with help from the federal government. Thomas S. Baskett, an MU professor and leading Missouri conservationist, became a driving force behind the project. Eventually, MU was given full ownership of the land.

Today, there are still old home sites standing vacant on the Baskett property. But, gradually, the forest is reclaiming the land.

“Having a block of land that’s a contiguous block, that’s forested can be kind of rare,” said Ben Knapp, the superintendent of the Baskett Research Center. “And so it gives us opportunities to see how wildlife works in that kind of habitat and see how those forests work under different conditions.”

The center now works to help people understand the inner workings of forests and find better forest management techniques.

“Humans need products and need things from natural resources including the enjoyment of just going out to visit them,” said Knapp. “So humans need that kind of thing that we get from our natural resources, but then the natural systems also have value in how they function and our impact on them. We have the ability to make decisions and we need to make the best decisions that we can.”

The center’s largest project is the Missouri Ozarks AmeriFlux tower that began in 2004. Jeff Wood, assistant research professor in the MU School of Natural Resources, said the 106-foot tower constantly “measures the breathing of the whole forest.”

A collaboration between MU, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Department of Energy, the MOFLUX tower is part of a global research network.

The tower measures concentrations of carbon dioxide and oxygen, light, air turbulence, temperature and the water vapor that is being exchanged between the forest and the atmosphere.

“You can basically take measurements of the forest and see kind of how things are flowing on pretty small timescales,” said MU research specialist Drew Anderson. “The trees are always exchanging, whether that be carbon and oxygen or chlorophyll fluorescence, lots of things going in and out.”

Starting at the top of the tower, there are special instruments that take these measurements, including an anemometer for wind speed and direction and gas analyzers for carbons dioxide concentrations. These and other instruments take measurements every few seconds.

On the ground, there are chambers around the tower that occasionally turn, open and close to measure the respiration of the soil. This respiration comes from microbes in the soil using energy and producing carbon dioxide.

To connect the two levels, a shed near the tower has a series of pumps that take in air samples. These are gathered from 16 points along a long tube that runs from the bottom to the top of the tower. The gas analyzer uses these air samples to find carbon dioxide and water vapor concentrations.

“All this data and science that we’re doing is kind of a means to the ends of climate modeling and climate forecasting and greater ecological modeling and research,” Anderson said. “I think everybody in the world has an interest in that, and the things that we find influence the actions we take and that influences what happens to all of us.”

Lots of research is spent on plants at an individual level and global circulations in air patterns, “but something that’s less known is in a forest like this, on this medium scale, how does the local atmosphere interact with soil in forest,” Anderson says.

The researchers are hoping to expand the MOFLUX project to include the property’s aquatic system.

“What we’ve been doing historically with MOFLUX is very terrestrial in focus,” Wood said. “And so, you know, there are streams, ponds and lakes, at Baskett that are, you know, obviously, part of that broader landscape.” He said the team now wants to study how the parts of Baskett’s ecology are connected.

Wood and Knapp are waiting to hear back from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation on their proposals for expanding their research.

Nick Swanson, Josie Heimsoth and Olivia Apostolovski contributed to this story

Recommended for you