Blue Oak Reserve Arrives at San Jose Airport

Blue Oak Ranch Reserve Reserve pond
Views of Blue Oak Ranch Reserve are on display at San Jose International Airport. Image credit: Greenmeme

Harried travelers trudging through Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport have a new way to escape the stresses of a modern transit hub. All they have to do is wander over to Terminal B, between the Alaska and Southwest ticket counters and the baggage carousels.

There they’ll spot a sleek kiosk housing video monitors on each side. One screen shows a sedge-lined pond that mirrors the sky; another, a satellite view of the South Bay; still more depict grassy hills dotted with majestic oaks. Draw closer to the kiosk, and the scenes begin to move. Clouds shift and shadows lengthen; two ducks wing in, then ripples crease the water behind the paddling pair. It’s time-lapse photography of the NRS’s Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, located just nine miles from the airport as the crow flies.

Wired Wilderness display case
The wood panels surrounding Wired Wilderness 01 are etched with an image of Blue Oak Ranch Reserve oak savannah. Image credit: Greenmeme

Called Wired Wilderness 01, the artwork by Freya Bardell and Brian Howe of Greenmeme Studio went live at the airport this week. They were awarded $30,000 from the City of San Jose Public Art Program, plus support from the airport’s Art + Technology Public Art Program, to create the piece.

The project is intended to raise awareness of climate change by blending Silicon Valley ingenuity with artistic creativity. These glimpses of nature beyond airport glass, steel, and asphalt also remind travelers of the inherent value of wild places.

“We were interested in looking at nature but also how technology is being used to better understand nature’s messages,” Bardell says. This focus led them to digital ecologist Michael Hamilton of the UC Natural Reserve System.

Inside pond camera box
Artists Freyja Bardell and Brian Howe modified a waterproof Pelican case to house the project’s cameras and routing equipment. Image credit: Greenmeme

For over a decade, Hamilton has helped pioneer the development of wireless environmental sensors. Designed to operate outdoors for long periods of time, these small devices can provide continuous recordings of climate, audio, and video conditions from remote locations. Arrays of sensors can provide a fine-grained view of physical conditions such as temperature, humidity, light levels, and soil moisture across an entire landscape, but also record the progression of events such as wildflower blooms and bird nesting.

The devices do double duty as wireless network nodes. They can relay data to a hub at reserve headquarters, where it be accessed via the Internet. A recent grant from the National Science Foundation through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) dramatically increased the speed and capacity of  the reserve network and the Internet, making the seamless transfer of video data from the reserve to the airport possible.

In 2008, Hamilton was named director of the NRS’s Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, located in the Diablo Range bordering eastern San Jose. He wasted no time deploying a new generation of environmental sensors across the 3,300-acre site. Dubbed the Very Large Ecological Array, the network keeps continuous tabs on conditions across the reserve’s oak woodlands, chaparral, sage scrub, and ponds.

To Bardell and Howe, Hamilton’s arrival at Blue Oak was nothing short of serendipitous. Wired to collect climate and video data from its farthest reaches, it seemed an ideal place to blend science, technology, and art. The City of San Jose agreed, awarding a $30,000 grant to Greenmeme to develop art responding to climate change.

Bardell and Howe wanted to collect some climate data of their own using the reserve’s existing wireless network. They envisioned cameras that could take photos of reserve sites every three minutes, then beam the images to the airport.

The replayed scenes “give travelers a different perspective on how time works; they see nature’s time compared to their time on the way to a flight,” Bardell says. By seeing these changes in the landscape, viewers are reminded of environmental transformations happening over a much longer and larger scale.

If the concept was straightforward, getting the system to work wasn’t so easy. Because the reserve generates all its electricity locally from solar panels, Bardell and Howe had to design the system to operate on very little power. The cameras had to withstand pouring rain, baking heat, and winter’s chill, yet remain able to transmit their photos to the airport for years on end.

Installing Wired Wilderness camera at Blue Oak Ranch Reserve
Blue Oak Ranch Reserve stew­ard Erik Viik fas­tens a cam­era box to its stand. The entire setup is pow­ered by a nearby solar panel. Image credit: Greenmeme

To solve the problem of weather resistance, Bardell says, “we hacked into watertight Pelican cases to make our own camera housings, then set the boxes onto mobile hunting stands.”

The project doesn’t just convey information away from the reserve; it also informs reserve research. For example, one scientist working at Blue Oak is using Greenmeme video to distinguish between fog and cool weather events in the reserve’s climate sensor records. The information will help establish whether fog patterns can be used as an indicator of climate change.

“We wanted the art to be something that functioned in tandem with science, ” Howe says, “as a conduit for science to get away from the reserve. We knew we were going to get a public audience at the airport, but we weren’t quite expecting a scientific one.”

Says Bardell, “it’s been a very valuable experience for us as artists to be immersed in the community of science researchers. We’ve spent a lot of time on the reserve and we’ve made good relationships with people doing many weird and wonderful research projects. The experiences we’ve had there will definitely go on to inform our future work.”