CORVALLIS, Ore. - An Oregon State University atmospheric scientist has received a prestigious National Science Foundation "Career Award" designed to support emerging influential scholars and educators who will become 21st century leaders.

Christoph Thomas, an assistant professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, was selected for the honor, which is the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for new faculty members.

During the next five years, Thomas will receive approximately $736,000 from the NSF to support his research on the relationship between plant canopies - such as forests and crops - and the lower atmosphere. The air exchange between these environments plays an important role in the transport of heat, moisture, momentum and trace gases, he says, but the "generally weak canopy flows are poorly understood.

"They have a significant impact on weather, air and water quality, and how we measure the growth rates of forests and crops."

Thomas plans to monitor the exchange by creating "a disco in the forest."

During the next several months, the OSU scientist and his "Biomicrometeorology Group" will install a network of sensors at the Botany and Plant Pathology Lab east of Corvallis that will measure wind speed, wind direction, air temperature, humidity and barometric pressure at multiple locations simultaneously. Then they will release machine-generated fog, illuminated with lasers, to directly visualize how air moves through the plant canopy.

The "disco" sounds will come from acoustic remote sensing that will be used to determine wind direction and speed in the air layer above the canopy - up to several hundred meters above ground.

"Combining all of these different sensing techniques is unique and will provide direct measurements of the spatial structure of the flow that hasn't been observed before," noted Thomas, who also has an adjunct appointment in OSU's Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. "We'll also install instrumentation at other sites, both less and more complex, to see how transport takes place in different canopy environments."

Thomas will work with graduate students, an Oregon K-12 high school teacher, and several colleagues on the studies. The project will include a teaching component, site visits by science classes, and a new graduate-level field course for students in atmospheric sciences, forestry, engineering and agricultural sciences.

Among the goals of the project:

  • Creating better models of air transport that will lead to better large-scale weather and climate models;
  • Reducing uncertainty in projections of carbon and energy budgets;
  • Improving the ability to predict water availability in forests.

Thomas joined the OSU faculty in fall of 2008, after spending two years as a post-doctoral researcher in the university's Department of Forest Science. Much of his work was with OSU professors Bev Law and Larry Mahrt, who direct the AmeriFlux project monitoring network in North and South America.

A native of Germany, Thomas received his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

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Chris Thomas, 541-737-7690