A Walk in the Woods, with Sensors

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Far to the west of the Mississippi River are the Rocky Mountains, new, raw and breathtaking in their seemingly sudden rise. On the east side of that river lies the Appalachian Chain, older and more weathered down, and known to hikers for the trail that begins in Spring Mountain, Georgia, and ends at Mount Katahdin, Maine, nearly 2200 miles distant. Some 4 million hikers walk parts of the trail each year. Let's hand sensors to some of them.

The Plan
A very good idea has been put forward to use these hikers as scouts who would report on what they perceive as the effects of climatic change, atmospheric conditions, and other phenomena affecting the environment along the trail. A sort of variation on the canary or the mouse in the coal mine. Why not entrust each willing hiker with a sensor or two to deploy along the way? I'd bet my next paycheck they'd do it, and gladly.

A Rash Wager?
Not really. The overwhelming majority of those who tramp the Appalachian Trail are truly green. Not so much as in inexperienced, but as in truly enamored of what remains of the green world. I believe they would gladly help any scientific mission whose intention is to collect objective, quantified data on the status of lakes, rivers, air quality, animal life, vegetative health, and the like.

It wouldn't be that difficult. The trail is not a roller-coaster. It has, in a sense, on and off ramps. Most hikers tackle it in stages, visiting towns along the way to wash their clothing, pick up mail, and buy provisions. Those willing to carry a few lightweight (and, of course, wireless) sensors to drop into the right places could easily be contacted through one of the many informal networks connecting them. Together, the sensors would form a web and send a complete report on what they detect. These amateur scientists would also be invited to photograph trees and take their measurements, note the arrival and departure of migratory birds, and carry out other observational tasks that no sensor can yet manage. So we're talking about a harmonious union of humans and technology. And no one would be pulling a wagon full of sensors for miles.

Know what? I suspect that backpacks would even feel lighter because their bearers would be helping preserve the land they love so dearly.

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