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'Big Science'
National Ecological Observatory Network being planned

By Fariss Samarrai

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other early Americans kept meticulous records of temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure. They often compared notes with each other, looking for long-term trends and relationships. Jefferson even proposed that every county seat have a weather station. He was concerned about the effects of climate on farming.

By the 1870s, the United States began building a network of weather stations across the country to better predict the weather and to understand the relationships between conditions in different areas. This eventually led to our daily weather forecasts, which can be relied upon for agriculture, transportation, commerce and everyday safety.

Jefferson also suggested conducting biological surveys, which have happened too, but sometimes haphazardly, with scientists in different locations often working in isolation on similar problems.

That may be about to change.

south dakota
The national network, led by environmental sciences professor Bruce Hayden, will consist of research stations across the continent, from the arctic to the tropics, all linked by state-of–the-art communications and data management equipment.

Bruce Hayden, U.Va. professor of environmental sciences, has been chosen by the National Science Foundation to head a national team of scientists in planning a multimillion-dollar National Ecological Observatory Network. The project will consist of numerous research stations across the continent, from the arctic to the tropics, all linked by state-of–the-art communications and data management equipment.

“This is big science,” Hayden said. “It will transform the way ecological science is done.”

As the principal investigator for NEON, Hayden will spend much of the next two years at NSF in Washington, working on the planning and design stages of the project. If fully funded by Congress, the NEON infrastructure will require an investment of several hundred million dollars and the observatories will operate for more than 30 years. Coordinating offices of the network eventually could be headquartered at U.Va. for the multidecade life of the project, though that decision will not be made until the planning stage is completed. Hayden is working with co-principal investigators Bill Michener, of the University of New Mexico and Jeffrey Goldman of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

“With NEON, people at observatories across the continent will be using the same equipment, working with the same missions and data protocols, working on big-scale projects,” Hayden said.

The concept for NEON is driven by the understanding that most systems in nature, such as watersheds or grasslands, share common characteristics, and all systems are interrelated and ultimately co-dependent. By setting up observatories around the continent — each conducting similar observations and studies and sharing data throughout a long period of time — patterns and trends will begin to emerge, enlightening scientists’ understanding of the various ecosystems and the global environment. Hayden and his colleagues hope to design a network that will allow scientists to more fully understand the effects of human activity on landscapes and how nature responds to these changes. The long-term goal of NEON is prediction of the future states of ecological systems.

“Once we have the network planned out and ready to be built, the planning groups will be replaced by a community of site owners,” Hayden said. “That is the group that will operate the observatories and enable a vigorous program of research.”

The building of the observatories will be done using a “layer cake model,” Hayden said. Observatories will be built layer by layer, simultaneously across the continent. “The layer at the bottom of the cake will be the foundation, the infrastructure that will be needed at each site regardless of what the particular science might be,” he said.

They will start with a cyber infrastructure system, which will allow fully automated data collection, storage and management. This data will be functional at sites throughout the network. From that base, scientists will work in layers based on priority, seeking answers to the biggest questions that develop as data is gathered and focus is sharpened. “The network will be conceived as a unit and put together as a unit,” Hayden said. Construction will take up to seven years.

Some of the big areas that will be investigated include climate change, patterns of land use, invasive species and the spread of infectious disease.

Several years ago, Hayden suggested the idea for a network of observatories to NSF officials during a two-year stint in Washington, as the foundation’s division director for environmental biology. The idea took hold, and in a competitive process, Hayden was selected to lead the planning and design process, with a great deal of input from colleagues across the country.

He hopes, of course, that the NEON headquarters ultimately will be based at U.Va.

“This would add stature to the University,” he said. “Our faculty and students would benefit greatly from the programs and infrastructure that would be brought here.”

It’s a Jeffersonian idea whose time may be about to come.


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