In the 1996 storm-chaser flick "Twister" one of the characters tosses a handful of sensors into the sky to be swept up by a menacing whirlwind. The sensors relay data that enables the heroes to save the day.
"I was watching the movie," said Arturo Sanchez-Azofiefa, of the university's department of Earth and atmospheric sciences.
"I thought to myself, 'Hmm ... I wonder if this stuff is real? Is this possible?' That's how we started the creative process of building everything."
What "Twister" led to is a network of about 1,000 small sensors in six different countries that can monitor up to 64 different environmental parameters and transmit data to a central location where it can be studied in real time. Researchers can tell exactly what the temperature is, how moist the soil is, the content of the local airshed and myriad other factors.
They can watch as a forest sucks in carbon dioxide during the day as it turns sunlight into sugar, then releases oxygen at night as the plants rest.
"You can see the system breathing, in and out," said Sanchez-Azofiefa.
Getting data as conditions occur — some sensors report every second — and being able to analyze it immediately changes everything about how scientists or policy-makers can react to change. Typically, said Sanchez-Azofiefa, a scientist would go into the field, collect data and come back to the lab to analyze it.
"You come back six months later and say, 'Hey look. This happens.' What this (innovation) is allowing us to do is, we go from the concept of 'it has happened' to the concept of 'it is happening now.'
"If you know the process ... you can actually detect that a drought is happening months before someone decides that, 'Oh yes, we have a drought.' It becomes a very important tool in decision-making."
That's already occurred. Sensors located in Costa Rica told monitors that a drought was in progress 150 days before the government acknowledged it.
The 1,000 sensors are each about the size of a cellphone. Just under one-third of them have been placed in northern Alberta, but they are also being used by collaborating researchers in Costa Rica, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and Australia.
The sensors were designed in Edmonton. The analytical software was adapted by IBM from some of its processing systems designed to crunch through huge amounts of data.
The sensors could be especially useful in Alberta, where they could provide a more comprehensive monitoring of pipeline networks.
Sanchez-Azofiefa said they could also attune researchers to subtle environmental changes in the oilsands region by providing instant notice of any changes and by improving the picture of what's normal.
"We can see, for example, 'Oh look — the leaves are popping out today in Peace River.' If we know the long-term history, we can say, 'They're popping out a week early. I wonder why.'"
It's a case of life imitating art, said Sanchez-Azofiefa.
"The inspiration for this was the movie 'Twister.'"
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