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Candidate research sites selected for the National Ecological Observatory Network

Site visit teams are evaluating the locations

For more than a decade ecologists have wanted to create an observatory for understanding complex ecological processes at multiple scales—from continental-scale biosphere dynamics to the microorganisms in soil and water. Now they are preparing to build it.

Since 2005, designers of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) have worked with their colleagues in the ecological community to refine the science and cyberinfrastructure plan for such an observatory. In 2007, the community suggested specific locations across the United States for deploying the ecological sensors and cyberinfrastructure that will create the network.

NEON is a continental-scale research platform for discovering and understanding the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species on ecology. It is the first initiative for the biological sciences to be funded through the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction fund, which has previously supported the construction of research vessels, particle accelerators, and large telescope arrays.

“Our telescope points everywhere,” said Dr. David Schimel, CEO of NEON. The Observatory will consist of distributed sensor networks and experiments, linked by advanced cyberinfrastructure to record and archive ecological data for at least 30 years. Using standardized protocols and an open data policy, NEON will gather essential data for developing the scientific understanding to manage some of the nation’s most pressing ecological challenges.

The NEON observing strategy is based on a systematic sampling across the largest scales of ecological variability in order to “scale up” analyses across the United States. Twenty core wildland sites form the stable, fixed elements of Observatory design. NEON partitions the United States (including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) into 20 ecoclimatic domains using a statistical analysis of ecoclimatic variables and wind vectors. Each domain will host a fully instrumented NEON core site, as well as a variety of relocatable and mobile instrument systems.

Relocatable tower systems will be deployed outside of the core sites for up to five years, then moved periodically. They will be used to expand measurements of variability and gather ecological data along elevation, precipitation, and land-use gradients. Rapid deployment systems (instruments on vehicles or towed by vehicles) will be used for shorter periods to study sudden events on the landscape, such as wildfires, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks, or the emergence of an invasive species.

In addition, NEON will equip aircraft with a variety of instruments to provide regional information for scaling and extrapolation from sites. A land use analysis package will support comprehensive assessment and analysis of patterns, changes, and drivers of land use, land cover, and land management.

Core site decisions made by the NEON technical review committee were informed by detailed responses from the ecological community to a Request for Information, and by a formal RFI evaluation panel convened by the National Science Foundation at the US Geological Survey’s EROS (Earth Resources Observation and Science) Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

After careful review of community responses, budget constraints, and scientific opportunities in the field, NEON, Inc. selected a candidate core wildland site for each ecoclimatic domain in the network:

1. Northeast site anchored at the Harvard Forest, Petersham, MA
2. Mid-Atlantic site located at the Smithsonian Conservation Research Center, Front Royal, VA
3. Southeast site based at the Ordway-Swisher Biological Station, Gainesville, FL
4. Atlantic Neotropical site located at the Guánica Forest, Puerto Rico
5. Great Lakes site based at either the Notre Dame Environmental Research Center/Trout Lake Station or the University of Michigan Biological Station
6. Prairie Peninsula site at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, Manhattan, KS
7. Appalachians/Cumberland Plateau site located in the Walker Branch Watershed, Oak Ridge, TN
8. Ozarks Complex site anchored in the Talladega National Forest, AL
9. Northern Plains site at the Woodworth Field Station, ND
10. Central Plains site at the Central Plains Experimental Range, CO
11. Southern Plains site located at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area or Shield Ranch, TX
12. Northern Rockies site based in the Yellowstone Northern Range, WY
13. Southern Rockies–Colorado Plateau site at Niwot Ridge, CO
14. Desert Southwest site anchored at the Santa Rita Experimental Range, AZ
15. Great Basin site located at Onaqui-Benmore, UT
16. Pacific Northwest site at the Wind River Experimental Forest, WA
17. Pacific Southwest site based at the San Joaquin Experimental Range or the Sagehen Experimental Forest, CA
18. Tundra site at Toolik Lake, AK
19. Taiga site located at Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed, AK
20. Pacific Neotropical site anchored at the Laupahoehoe Forest Unit/Hawaii Experimental Tropical Forest on the Island of Hawaii

A thorough evaluation of the candidate wildland sites is now under way. Site visit team members are evaluating both the scientific and logistical characteristics of the sites. Some team members have scientific expertise with biota and ecological infrastructure, including flux measurements and the placement of research towers. Other team members are evaluating site logistics, such as distance to roads, power supplies, and communications lines, and housing and laboratory space for NEON staff. As of June 2007, NEON teams of ecologists and technical experts have visited seven of the 20 candidate sites.

Dan Johnson | EurekAlert!
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