New nationwide observatory will track how climate change and land use affect ecosystems.

In some ways it's silly to draw a line between people and nature. People are a part of nature, naturally. But it would also be silly to discount the fact that people have had a negative impact on nature – from over-use of natural resources to insensitive land development patterns to widespread pollution and contamination. We know we can be a problem. Now, in a new continental-scale, 30-year science effort, we're trying to keep an eye on just how badly we're screwing things up.

Ground has just broken on this new effort, the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which will literally blanket the entire United States with dozens of monitoring stations to document how different ecosystems change as a result of climate change and differing land use patterns – essentially the kinds of environmental problems we can trace back to ourselves.

The NEON website explains:

To help us understand how we can maintain our quality of life on this planet, we must develop a more holistic understanding of how biosphere services and products are interlinked with human impacts. This cannot be investigated using disconnected studies on individual sites or over short periods of observation. Further, existing monitoring programs that collect data to meet natural resource management objectives are not designed to address climate change and other new, complex environmental challenges.

The data collection will be standardized across 20 different eco-climatic domains, or ecosystems, and will be collected on a continuous basis for the next 30 years. With this massive, easily comparable set of data, NEON will be one observatory to rule them all. As the Economist notes:

Eventually, 60 places across the country will be covered simultaneously. Once this network is completed, in 2016 if all goes well, 15,000 sensors will be collecting more than 500 types of data, including temperature, precipitation, air pressure, wind speed and direction, humidity, sunshine, levels of air pollutants such as ozone, the amount of various nutrients in soils and streams, and the state of an area’s vegetation and microbes.

Source: NEON

The map above shows where these monitoring sites will be located in the contiguous U.S., and the outlines of the various ecosystems that will be studied – the Great Basin, the Northern Plains, the Ozarks Complex, the Great Lakes Region. Data will be collected at mobile sites, relocatable sites, fixed ground monitoring stations and through airborne observation. Operated through the National Science Foundation and started up with a congressional earmark of $484 million, the observatory now has its first three stations under construction. Once the entire network is up and running, all data collected will be available free.

The 30-year time frame and massive scale of this observatory is impressive. And while the lead investigators of this project don't directly blame people for the changes they're trying to monitor, it's pretty clear that the problems and transformations we're seeing in the environment are largely thanks to us. By watching how we've impacted things more closely, the idea is to better prevent ourselves from mucking things up any worse.

Image courtesy NEON

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