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Remote Sensing

New US observatory will study climate change over next 30 years

The National Ecological Observatory Network will provide advanced scientific capabilities and data resources for experiments related to ecological change.
13 March 2009, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.1200902.1530

The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), funded by the National Science Foundation, has been designed to enable understanding and forecasting of the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species on continental-scale ecology.1 It consists of a network of environmental observatories distributed across the continental USA. The project is currently in the initial design phases, during which we are developing the physical infrastructure and remote-sensing information network that will enable scientists to study ecology and perform experiments over a 30-year period.

We have partitioned the USA into 20 ecoclimatic domains of similar ecological and climatic diversity (see Figure 1). These include the grasslands of the Central Plains, the desert southwest, and the Alaskan tundra. Within each domain, we have identified a representative permanent core site and two relocatable sites. We measure the ecology at each site using sensor instrumentation, human-collected physical samples of plants, animals, insects, and microbes, and a custom-outfitted airplane providing lidar (light detection and ranging) and spectrometry data. Data collected from NEON sites will be merged with data obtained from other sources, such as satellites, weather stations, and historical archives. This combined data resource will provide scientists with the means to answer questions on climate change, biodiversity, biogeochemical cycles, ecohydrology, infectious diseases, invasive species, and changes in land use.

Figure 1. Map showing the 20 ecoclimatic domains into which the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) has divided the USA.

The complexity and challenges of creating a national observatory of this magnitude are enormous. However, when NEON becomes operational it will provide unparalleled capabilities to enable scientific research both now and in the future. The data collected will be deep, broad, and diverse, and all of it will be organized, cataloged, and made publicly available. Scientists will be able to use or mine the data directly, or they can request that custom sensors or suites of measurements be incorporated into the database. Once we have developed the infrastructure to interface, maintain, and extract the data from the sensors and physical-ecology sampling to the NEON database, scientists will be able to focus on understanding the sophisticated physical and chemical interrelationships that drive ecological change, as opposed to the logistics of deploying and maintaining specialized, stand-alone infrastructure in the field. While we have identified a core set of data to collect in the initial deployment, NEON will be designed to accommodate nearly any type of sensor, measurement system, or ecological-sampling requirement. We do not wish to limit the capabilities or value of the observatory to the scientific community.

Each of the 20 domains contains three representative sites (see Figure 2). Within these sites, ecological characteristics will be measured at specialized locations that vary based on the specific types of ecological phenomena within the domain. Thus, the instrumentation infrastructure must operate in a wide range of environmental conditions. The primary permanent core site includes one advanced, two basic, and one aquatic instrumentation location, as well as an array of plots where ecological samples can be collected for later analysis. Two semipermanent relocatable sites each include one advanced and possibly one aquatic location, as well as an array of ecological-sampling plots. Each location is further divided into specialized remote-sensing-instrumentation components for measuring atmospheric, soil, and water phenomena. Atmospheric instrumentation mounted on a tower will collect measurements such as eddy covariance, plant respiration, pollution concentrations, wind, microclimate, solar radiation, and ground radiation. Soil instrumentation, mounted both above ground and in soil pits, will measure factors that contribute to soil respiration and plant growth and health. Aquatic instrumentation will be mounted in flowing streams, ponds, and sampling wells. In addition, the instrumentation infrastructure will be capable of monitoring environmental health and provide automatic failsafe protocols to ensure high reliability.

The total initial estimate for the data volume collected across the entire observatory exceeds one trillion data points per year. All of this remotely generated data must be formatted into files and transferred to the central NEON data-processing center. There it will be processed, analyzed, stored, and made accessible in an easily searchable database for more than 30 years.

Figure 2. Block diagram of a typical NEON-domain observation infrastructure.

The diversity of the science, engineering, construction, and large-project coordination needed to build NEON is as inspiring as its emerging technical capability. Because it is intended to be an enabling infrastructure to facilitate long-term climate- and ecological-change research, its design is driven by five key requirements: reliable operation, ease of use within and value to the scientific community, impeccable data integrity, user-friendly educational resources, and accommodations for future research needs and technology advancements. Other facets include development of educational products, the science behind the NEON architecture, collaborations with universities and other scientific institutions, and computer infrastructure.

Thomas Cilke
NEON–National Ecological Observatory Network
Boulder, CO

Tom Cilke recently joined NEON Inc. as the director of engineering after working as an engineering manager overseeing the development of advanced focal-plane arrays for Sandia National Laboratories. He received his PhD from the University of New Mexico.