Utilizing Space Age Digital Strain Measurement Technology to Identify Zones of Mechanical Weakness in Trees

2012 | Gary Watson, PhD, The Morton Arboretum

Researchers studying tree biomechanics are constantly striving to understand why and how trees fail, and if it is possible to predict when a tree will fail.  Previous research by the principle investigator has shown that locally high strains along the stem and roots were indicative of areas of mechanical weakness.  We now hypothesize that it is possible to identify zones of mechanical weakness (e.g. decay, splits, hollows and poor anchorage) through analysis of strain distributions along trees.  Available technology has limited further research in this area.  Strain gauges (sensors which measure how much a material has been stretched, or compressed) are effective, but not practical to measure movement of the entire surface area.

Study Results

This project employed a cutting edge technology developed by NASA in tree research for the first time, and it has been a significant step forward in the understanding of tree failures. The field data collection is complete, and the international team of collaborators will be engaged in mining that wealth of data, presenting at conferences, and publishing papers for some time. 

Since the elm trees needed to be excavated for this project, a second independent project was organized to take advantage of the opportunity. The root systems of the elm trees were mapped with ground penetrating radar before pulling them, and root systems were mapped at the same location after they were excavated to compare the radar locations with field measurements. It is related to this project in that we hope that as we come to understand what kind of root system architecture is most stable, we can then map the root systems of trees to assess the stability of trees non-destructively.

Project Final Report

Article: Biomechanics gets a boost from NASA technology


For more information on this project, contact the researcher via TREE Fund at treefund@treefund.org.