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Ecologists Embark on a Nationwide Quest to Measure America’s Ecological Health

By Dave Levitan

Some of the consequences of climate change are pretty straightforward: temperatures go up, ice melts, sea level rises. Scientists have powerful evidence that all of these are happening, and good reason to think they’ll keep happening if we continue adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The kudzu vine was originally imported to combat soil erosion, but now covers tremendous acreage throughtout the South. Credit: flickr/bill.I.am

But other consequences are a lot harder to measure and a lot harder to predict. One of the toughest is the disruption and reshaping of ecosystems as plants and animals try to adjust to changing temperatures, new patterns of precipitation and more. It’s complicated because some species are more sensitive to climate change than others. And it’s even more complicated because climate change is only one of many things that are wreaking havoc on the natural world — factors like deforestation, agriculture, pollution and human-aided invasions by non-native species (think boa constrictors in Florida, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and the voracious kudzu vine all over the Southeast).   

“We’re really pushing the whole living world into a situation that’s unlike the past, because of unprecedented, high rates of climate change; because of land use [change], and because of the sort of Cuisinart mixing up of the biosphere through invasive species,” says David Schimel, the chief science officer and principal investigator of a bold new scientific effort called the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON.

Funded to the tune of $434 million by the National Science FoundationNEON will be a continental-scale network of 62 data-collection sites that, once up and running for some time, should help scientists understand how ecosystems respond to change. Construction of some of the new sites will begin early in 2012.

In the past, these ecosystem monitoring efforts were only done piecemeal by different researchers, if they were done at all. But now, it will be as though the country were going in for a physical: researchers want to take its temperature, measure its pulse, its blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and every other variable you can think of, all at the same time.

How it works

Schimel and his colleagues have already divided the United States into 20 domains — the northern Rockies, central plains, Pacific Northwest, and so on. Each of these domains will have one core site with a staff of six to eight, and two other smaller sites. Each site will be armed with sensors that collect information on 539 different variables, from soil composition to air quality to microbial diversity. And they’ll collect this information for 30 years.

Researchers have divided the country into nearly two dozen domains with one core site and two smaller sites in each. Instruments will gather data on more than 500 variables, from soil composition to air quality. Credit: NEON.

That’s an awful lot of data, but, admits Schimel, “we knew that we did not understand the system we were observing.” Ordinarily, scientists might keep track of just a few key variables, but ecological systems are so complex that there’s no way to be sure what exactly to focus on. By casting a wide net and measuring a lot of different variables, he says, the project should have enough information to understand the surprises they’re sure to come across. It’s like mapping big chunks of the genome rather than looking for some individual mutation that could affect your risk for a disease.

Within that genome, scientists will be able to look for all sorts of patterns. Jill Baron, for example, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, will use NEON to help her answer specific research questions on the movement of dust and nitrogen between the Rockies and the Great Plains. Dust, she explains, can have a variety of effects on regional climate, while nitrogen from car exhaust, agricultural runoff, and other sources acts as an important environmental pollutant. Getting a handle on exactly how these things are moving is key in determining which areas might experience problems in the future — such as soil degradation or changes in lake and stream water quality.

Comprehensive though it is, NEON won’t answer every possible question about global warming, land use, and invasive species. Sixty-plus sites, each of them monitoring 539 variables, is a lot, but it’s not good enough. As Baron puts it: “One of the drawbacks of a national network is that you can’t afford to capture all of the complexity that exists ecologically.” In other words, the wind speed at two sites a hundred miles apart doesn’t necessarily tell you the speed at all points in between.

But Schimel stresses that the new streams of data pouring out of NEON will be integrated and combined with any number of existing monitoring systems — data from satellites, to name just one example. “All of our climate measurements are coordinated with NOAA,” he says, “so they’ll be fully interoperable with the Climate Reference Network and NOAA’s other programs — for example CO2 concentration [monitoring] — so they’ll form an even larger universe of data.”

The story of the nation's first continental ecological observatory. Credit: NEON.

The vastness of this universe, of course, creates some problems of its own. Collecting, sorting and maintaining more than 200 terabytes of data per year (imagine 16 billion copies of the web page you’re looking at now, or close to 100,000 of the biggest Youtube video files), and making them usable by scientists, will be an ongoing challenge. During NEON’s 30-year lifespan, moreover, sensor technology will improve, and new satellites will come online while others will be decommissioned. Just keeping up with all these changes won’t be easy.

There could be sociological pitfalls as well: an editorial in the journal Nature this summer noted that whereas NEON encourages a more collaborative, open-access type of process, ecologists have long collected data independently. Will the scientific community be ready for this type of cultural shift? Notably, one other project suggests the answer might be yes: the Nutrient Network, started in 2005 to answer questions about grasslands and global change, has grown rapidly to include 66 sites across 10 countries. Collaborative ecology, where researchers across wide areas work together in an attempt to capture some of the complexity inherent in the systems they study, may represent the next general step in the field.

Forecasting and education

Importantly, simply gathering the data isn’t the final goal: a key part of NEON’s mission is enabling better climate forecasting. The real point of understanding changes in climate or land use is to be able to predict what comes next. Which forests will survive? What sorts of drought can various regions expect? Where will an invasive species end up next, and what will that mean for the ecosystem it invades? NEON hopes to provide the hard data that should let scientists make much better forecasts.

NEON also sports a thoroughly modern attitude toward openness, access, and education and public engagement. According to Wendy Gram, who is heading up the education side of NEON, the idea from the beginning was to develop the basic science in tandem with methods for bringing that science out into the public.

"Collecting the data in and of itself — that is, just having data that no one uses — isn’t very valuable," Gram says. Not only will every shred of sensor output be available online, but NEON will work with educators, curriculum developers, and even museums to make sure the information gleaned is disseminated in an understandable fashion to the widest possible audience.

The first NEON measurements will start coming in by next summer, with more robust data collection starting in earnest by the following year. It may take some time before the project provides any specific answers or forecasts, but the way its planners and scientists see it, NEON has more to do with providing a powerful foundation for outsiders’ questions and projects.

“It’s a platform,” Schimel says. “For some studies the platform provides all the information you need, in the same way that pretty much any oceanographic ship allows you to do basic hydrography. But it also allows you to add in very targeted measurements, [and] put them in this very broad context.”

With the effects of climate change being felt more and more in recent years, from extreme precipitation events to heat waves, getting such a standardized, large-scale project off the ground constitutes a major step forward for ecological researchers. It's a step that may be coming just in time.