As we near the end of 2019, we looked back on the tremendous work the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) program delivered this year, demonstrating the real impact this research has on both our environment and human life. NEON is a continental-scale ecological observation facility, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Battelle since 2016. The goal of the NEON program is to provide high-quality, consistently generated data—free and available to all users—that will enable scientists, researchers, and students to address critical questions and understand changes in ecosystem composition over time. The project’s comprehensive data, spatial extent and remote sensing technology will enable the user community to tackle new questions on an unprecedented scale.
Here are some of the most exciting research efforts from the NEON program in the past year:
- A new NEON Biorepository – funded by the NSF and managed by Arizona State University (ASU) – opened in January. The primary NEON Biorepository at ASU includes plant, animal, soil, water, microbe and DNA samples from 81 NEON field sites across all 20 NEON domains, creating a biological collection of unprecedented scale and scope. The archive will become even more valuable over time as it continues to grow. Thousands of legacy samples from the ASU Natural History Collections are already stored and displayed there. Another similarly sized section is available for renovation and will house the biological samples collected at NEON field sites over the 30-year life of the Observatory.
- A new study by Marc G. Kramer and Oliver A. Chadwick examined the role of minerals in facilitating carbon sequestration in soil. Their analysis used mega pitsoil samples from 47 NEON field sites augmented by a set of additional soils ranging from arid to humid climates. The results demonstrated that the amount of carbon retained by reactive minerals could be highly sensitive to future changes in climate.
- Rainer Volkamer, Associate Professor of Chemistry at CU–Boulder and Principal Investigator of the BB-FLUX project, in partnership with Tristan Goulden, NEON Remote Sensing Lead Research Scientist, conducted a new study using data collected at NEON sites and funded through the NSF in attempt to answer critical questions about the correlations between biomass burned from wildfires and the emitted quantities of trace gases and aerosols.
- The final NEON site, the NEON PUUM field site – located in the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve (NAR), a protected habitat just north of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park – became fully operational. It joins monitoring and conservation efforts already underway in this unique pacific tropical ecosystem. NEON data will support these efforts and give researchers new insight into how the climate and ecosystem are changing in the mountains of Hawai‘i.
- François Ritter, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois–Chicago Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, provided important insights into the frequency of dew formation across the U.S. The study, co-authored by Max Berkelhammer and Daniel Beysens, used sensor data from NEON terrestrial field sites to examine the conditions that lead to dew formation in different ecosystems. The findings could help ecologists better predict how ecosystems will respond to increased drought frequency.
- James ‘Jim’ Clark, Professor of Environment Science and Statistical Science at Duke University, and his students conducted a study to predict species and community responses to climate change leveraging data from Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA), and NEON.
- Erik Oberg, National Park Service biologist at Yellowstone National Park, led an ambitious beetle-biodiversity initiative on the Northern Range of the park. The Yellowstone Phenology Project collects data on Carabid beetles and other environmental indicators at seven NEON sites across a 4,000-foot elevation gradient. Erik recruited a cadre of citizen scientists to collect, classify and count beetles collected at the sites.
- Kai Zhu, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was awarded a $700,000 grant from the NSF to investigate how soil fungi might respond to climate change and other ecological disturbances. He and his team will utilize fungi DNA gathered from NEON and the Dimensions of Biodiversity project on North American soil fungi (DoB-FUN).
- Sydne Record, Assistant Professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr College, was awarded an NSF grant to research how natural and human-made factors affect geographic patterns of biodiversity. The grant will fund teaching modules which highlight data science skills needed to work with NEON data.
- The NSF awarded Bowling Green State University professor, Dr. Kevin McCluney, a four-year, $780,000 macrosystems grant, to fund research on the extent to which birds’ migratory patterns, wind, and climate link 25 prairie playas in North Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. This project will also study how invertebrates in this large system of wetlands change over time. The researchers chose these playas based on their proximity to five NEON sites across the Great Plains.
- A new species – a single-celled aquatic alga with a cell wall made of silica – was discovered at NEON field sites in Puerto Rico by a team led by Marco Cantonati, Don Charles and Ionel Ciugulea of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the MUSE – Museo delleScienze. This is the first new species discovered at a NEON field site.
- Erin Hotchkiss, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, and her collaborators received a $1.12 million grant from the NSF to investigate NEON sites to determine how carbon moves across land-water boundaries and the multi-scale consequences of terrestrial carbon losses for freshwater ecosystems and global carbon budgets.
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