ECOLOGICAL MONITORING: Sensors atop this tower in the Harvard Forest have provided the longest-term measure ever collected by scientists in the U.S. of the interactions between an ecosystem and the atmosphere. Image: Courtesy National Ecological Observatory Network
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A new network of observatories aims to take ecological science to the continental scale in the next 30 years. The National Science Foundation–sponsored network, called the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, will link 20 field stations selected to provide data from 20 distinct U.S. biomes as well as 40 portable stations that can be moved from site to site. NEON will monitor how large-scale problems such as climate change, pollution and urban sprawl affect ecosystems as diverse as the Great Lakes and Hawaii.
Construction needed to link all the stations will begin soon in the Mountain West and Northeast, including monitoring towers that will characterize each site. The full network should be in place and operational by 2016.
In the near-term, sensors scattered in field and stream will begin to collect regional data in standardized ways that can then be compared nationwide. Readings will range from simple rain gauges to sophisticated measurements of air pollution levels. Samples will be taken of organisms ranging from microbes to ground beetles. And all measurements will be standardized to allow rigorous comparison of the effects of big environmental problems on different eco-regions. That is more ambitious and potentially more scientifically fruitful than the previous such foundation project—the Long Term Ecological Research Network begun in 1980—which largely answered specific questions about impacts in a specific region, albeit in a way that failed to allow comparisons with other sites.
Ultimately, NEON hopes to show how humans can maintain our quality of life on this planet by better understanding how ecosystems deliver vital services—clean water, air, pollination—and respond to our own impacts on these systems. In essence, NEON will light up the night of our own ecological ignorance.