World Environment Day - part 1

Forests play a vital role in the Earth’s carbon cycle, which is key to the survival of all living organisms. But researchers have been wondering: how will forests respond to climate change and higher levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere? Will they thrive, using the higher levels of carbon to reproduce and photosynthesise at greater rates? Could they adapt to store more carbon woodland, helping us to slow down climate change?

Thanks to the Birmingham Facility of Forestry Research (BIFoR), we can find answers to some of these questions and more.

The institute is running a Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FACE) experiment, where mature forests are immersed in an atmosphere with an elevated carbon dioxide concentration – similar to what the planet may experience in 30 years. Hopefully, the BIFoR-FACE experiment will provide researchers with the information needed to prepare us for the future and protect the planet in the present.  

Technicians are key to running this world-leading facility. In celebration of World Environment Day, we spoke to two of the technicians in the BIFoR-FACE team. First up, we have Nick Harper, 58, Senior Engineering Technician.  

Hi Nick! What do you do as a Senior Engineering technician at BIFoR-FACE?

I am responsible for the safe storage and distribution of Carbon Dioxide on-site. Carbon Dioxide is stored as a liquid at 20 bar pressure and minus 20 degrees Celsius – that’s 20 times the normal atmospheric pressure and a similar temperature to a deep freeze.

Our team’s scientists decide the levels at which they would like carbon dioxide levels in the forest to be maintained and how much they would like to send in. My role is to ensure there is sufficient CO2 stored and that it is released at the correct rate. If the CO2 was released all at once into the forest at minus 20 degrees Celsius the woodland would end up looking like Narnia!

I control a system that reduces the pressure and adds heat to change the liquid into a gas and then to warm it up to the same temperature as the forest. I am also responsible for regularly recording all the CO2 levels, and sending the data to the scientific team.

Why are technicians like you important?

Technicians are fundamental to setting up and running long-term experiments for the University of Birmingham, such as BIFoR FACE. My experience in designing and implementing computer control systems for large scale industrial plants, means  I have the valuable skills needed to connect the different computer monitoring systems collecting all manner of data from across the woodland – from the CO2 emitted by worms in the soil to the prevailing weather conditions 40 metres above the forest at the methane flux tower.


What couldn’t happen without you? 

My computer networking skills mean we can connect all of the available instruments so that scientific teams at the university can see the data in real-time. It also means that we can quickly recognise and fix equipment failures.

What led you to choose this job role?

I was working offshore on a North Sea oil and gas production facility and found it claustrophobic.  Working in woodland is a lot better!

What’s the best bit about your job?

Working in the forest, there is always something new to look at in nature. In April and May, the bluebells are amazing.

My job is very also very varied – day-to-day I could be anywhere from moving across the entire forest underground to climbing instrumentation towers to read CO2 levels 40 metres above the forest canopy.


What are the skills and attributes you need to do your job?

I need to be very flexible and have an in-depth understanding of the instrumentation, to help the researchers install the equipment and fix it quickly if it fails.

What is your daily routine like?

For the first part of the day, I am often checking that all of the CO2 delivery systems are online and that the monitoring systems are giving accurate readings. Then I look at the maintenance schedule, and if there is nothing that needs to be urgently repaired or serviced, I check the scientific equipment and assist the research teams as much as possible.

What would you say to a young person thinking about a technical career?

It’s important to get as involved in as much as possible. In engineering, there is always something new coming along but the basic principles remain the same. With a good grounding, you can work through most challenges. It’s also important to develop your transferable skills. At first sight, it might look like there is nothing in common between my previous working environment of an oil Platform, to the research forest where I work now, but in reality, the computer networking and monitoring systems are similar.   


To take a tour of the BIFoR-FACE facility, click here


To learn more about the carbon cycle, click here


To hear more about the importance of forests in the carbon cycle, listen to the podcast below: 




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