At any given time, scientists across the United States are engaged in projects that, individually, provide glimpses into the health of the nation's environment. But never has the scientific community attempted to unite its efforts to provide near-constant monitoring of the U.S. ecology in its entirety - until now. Researchers hope to launch an ambitious project called "NEON" within a year.
Imagine a network that could provide real-time data on virtually any facet of the environment in any region of the United States, from the pace of logging in Washington State to atmospheric conditions in Colorado to land contaminants in New York to mosquito populations in Florida. Sound far-fetched? Not according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, which is championing the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON.
Mary Clutter is the foundation's assistant director. She fielded questions about NEON from leading ecological researchers at a recent conference in Washington.
"NEON is really infrastructure," she said. "It is to provide state-of-the-art instrumentation, equipment - whatever it takes to answer important ecological questions."
The National Science Foundation envisions constructing 16 observatories in the United States, plus one in Antarctica. Each observatory would be equipped with the latest environmental sensors and monitoring instruments, plus a variety of analytical tools. The observatories would be linked to each other, as well as to existing ecological research facilities, via computer - providing an enormous data stream through what Mary Clutter describes as a "network of networks."
Ms. Clutter admits that much of the data generated would be of limited interest to the public at large, such as soil moisture levels in remote regions of the country. But she says NEON would have immediate practical applications, as well.
"The spread of disease across the country - we have an example of that with West Nile virus," she said. "Being able to track this across the entire continent very rapidly will be very important for all of us."
Among those attending the NEON conference was Stanford University's Steve Palumbi. A marine biologist, Mr. Palumbi says, at present, environmental researchers and institutions conduct specific investigations - each of which provides a snapshot of a particular facet of the ecology for a particular time period.
For example, a recent report by an independent U.S. scientific commission [Pew Oceans Commission] sounded alarms about the health of America's coastal ecosystems and waterways, as well as the world's oceans. Mr. Palumbi says such reports have great value but adds that something is missing: the ability to constantly monitor a multitude of ecological indicators that, together, can help identify larger environmental trends.
"We do not have biological diversity monitoring, for example, across the country right now," he said. "You could not go to a place in the country and ask, 'how is the biological diversity doing today?' And the proposal for NEON is to be able to answer that question."
Steve Palumbi says the ultimate goal is to be able to preserve and protect the environment on which humans and all species depend.
"We get a lot from the organisms we live with," he said. "You know [for example], marsh grasses in swamps actually protect coastlines from storm damage and filter out sediments and help with sewage treatment. So, understanding how that [biological] diversity, in fact, "pays for" [allows] the lives we lead is one of the main things that ecological science is trying to do."
National Science Foundation Assistant Director Mary Clutter says, until the observatories are up and running, it is difficult to imagine all the potential benefits NEON could provide to the scientific community.
"We will see remarkable things that we cannot even predict today as a result of people working together," she said. "We have already seen this with the big (genetic) sequencing projects: the human genome, plant genomes. We cannot predict right now what having all of this information will allow us to do. But I think we will be able to understand at a very deep level what is going on in the environment."
The National Science Foundation hopes to secure from Congress within a year the estimated $20 million in funding required to launch NEON.