Reach for the top

Reach for the top

Trent University's state-of-the-art research centre offers a bird's-eye view of the effects of climate change
May 1, 2006
At first glance, Trent University’s James McLean Oliver Ecological Research Centre looks like any other lakefront property in the picturesque Kawartha region of Ontario. But tucked in behind the wide-open fields and sugar maple trees sits the headquarters for one of the nation’s most innovative research field stations.

Donated by Marjorie Oliver to Trent University in October 1998, the sprawling 270-acre property nestled on the shores of Pigeon Lake in the Kawarthas is now home to the Oliver Ecological Research Centre. The property includes a large farmhouse, a four-bedroom cottage, two sleeping cabins, 94 acres of woodland, 85 acres of fields, and 3.7 acres of wetlands. These varied outdoor environments are habitats to a diverse collection of birds, animals, insects, vegetation, and other organisms.

With its unique combination of research facilities and natural habitat, the centre serves as an ideal field station for the research of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Ecological monitoring systems have been set up for long-term studies throughout the open fields, forests, plantations, ponds, and shorelines.

Here in this tranquil environment, Trent professors, graduates, and undergraduates work year-round—measuring changes in air, soil, sediment, and water quality—to gain insight into the changing state of the environment and the biological effects of climate change. The key to their success lies in the peacefulness of their surroundings because the centre limits disturbances to the environments under study.

“It’s pretty difficult to set up experiments that aren’t going to be disturbed by somebody coming along and cutting down trees or putting in roads,” says Tom Hutchinson, the centre’s director and a professor of environment and resource studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. “But the Oliver Centre gives us guaranteed long-term access and stability for studying the effects of climate change.”

Researchers at the centre also draw on an arsenal of innovative instruments to conduct research on everything from the response of spring flora to ozone levels to the effects of land-use on woodland-nesting birds. For example, they have access to a meteorological station that constantly monitors weather conditions, including sunshine, UV-B light, wind speed, wind direction, and air and soil temperatures. One key finding based on temperature-related data gathered by the station is that Eastern Canada’s growing season has increased 10 days over the past 30 years and continues to expand. While this may come as good news to farmers, Hutchinson says that an early spring may negatively affect the migratory patterns of birds and their access to food sources such as insects.

Among the centre’s apparatus, the pièce de résistance would have to be its canopy access system. It heralds a breakthrough in the study of air pollution and its impact on hardwood forest. The system consists of five, 85-foot poles erected into the forest floor allowing researchers to access the tops of the forest’s towering sugar maple trees. Users can walk from pole to pole via heavy cables suspended 70 feet above the ground. At the top of each pole is a square platform that enables researchers to free their hands to take measurements while seated in their climbing harnesses. Such treetop access clears the way for studies about premature leaf loss, the effects of air pollution on the forest canopy, and the physiological response of leaf surface to changes in the ozone.


At this very moment, several such studies are underway at the centre. Among the most fascinating is the exploration of how toxic elements produced by various activities, such as metal smelting, and coal and gasoline burning, seep into the forest floor. In one study, a small amount of lead was applied to plots beneath sugar maple trees. After one year, 77% of the sample had been lost from the soil, signifying a rapid turnover of forest floor. Whereas researchers have long believed that lead remains entrenched in soil, the centre’s study shows significant mobility of metal traces—proof that soil decontaminates faster than once suspected. This may sound promising until you consider that these metal contaminants have not disappeared, but are making their way into the nation’s lakes, streams, and oceans at a much more rapid pace than was once thought. Therefore, mitigation activities are required well beyond forest floors.


The centre’s canopy access system is a rare treat for researchers wishing to access a forest canopy. By providing a gateway to treetops to monitor the effects of climate change, the centre has become the site of important plant-life discoveries. For example, researchers recently detected signs of visible damage, such as bleaching, in the leaves of sugar maple trees. This is a symptom of excessive exposure to UV-B radiation resulting in a loss of chlorophyll. Such bleaching threatens to cause premature leaf loss, which could shorten the very lifespan of forest trees. Trees survive winter, for example, by pulling stored nitrogen and phosphorus from their leaves.

“The climate near the ground that you and I might walk on is markedly different from the climate that the top part of a tree canopy is exposed to,” says Dave McLaughlin, supervisor of the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s phytotoxicology investigations program. “Leaves have specifically adapted over the millennia to react very differently to climate than grass. So looking at the climate and tree canopy interactions in situ is leading-edge research.”

A web of poles and cables isn’t the only way the centre is lending researchers a fresh perspective on the effects of climate change. While most field stations operate for a maximum of five years, the Oliver Centre allows for undisturbed, long-term ecological research for periods of five, 10, 25, and 50 years. The extended time periods ensure far greater insight into an ecosystem’s response to environmental stresses such as ozone levels and air pollution.

“To really come to grips with the effects of climate change, we need fairly long-term studies,” emphasizes Raleigh Robertson, a professor of biology and the Baillie Family Chair in Conservation Biology at Queen’s University. “Instead of just a one-time study which may last five years, we can have a greater continuity of studies at the Oliver Centre.”


With its unique combination of research facilities, on-site field instrumentation, accommodations, and computing facilities, the centre has drawn the attention of researchers from a wide array of disciplines, including ecology, biology, ornithology, forestry, and climatology.

Scientists from a number of government organizations including the Ontario Ministry of Environment, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Environment Canada also visit the centre regularly to conduct research and supervise Trent University’s graduate students. According to McLaughlin, such collaboration between academia and industry personnel “piques students’ interest and shows them if they find that kind of work academically stimulating, with a little luck, they can find a job doing the same thing.”