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National ecology study described as cutting edge, groundbreaking

SALT LAKE CITY — The first national-scale research platform designed to measure major environmental challenges is being developed in 20 "eco-climatic" areas — and five of its data collection sites are slated to be in Utah.

Two — one in Red Butte Creek and another in Tooele County in the Onaqui Mountains area — are "core" sites that are expected to remain for the life of the 30-year project that is described as "precedent setting."

Three others, the Murray urban site, one in Red Butte Canyon and the other in Moab, can be relocated if necessary.

NEON, or the National Ecological Observatory Network, is the first continental- scale experimental facility designed to enable basic research on the impacts of climate and land-use changes, water use and invasive species on ecosystems and the relevance of those impacts to people.

"Earth's living systems are experiencing the greatest rates of change in its history due to land-use change, invasive species and climate change, and many of these changes are going to be abrupt and unpredictable," said Elizabeth Blood, program director of the National Science Foundation's NEON.

Blood was one of three foundation leaders who described the need and application of the NEON project during a Thursday teleconference hosted by the organization.

"Our understanding of Earth's living systems doesn't match that of the geosphere or the atmosphere," she said, "and for more than two decades, the ecological research community has been calling for a (facility) to enable the study of life at regional and national scales."

The network, expected to be fully operational by 2017, taps into cyber technology and remote sensing to collect data using airplanes that can fly at 3,000 feet. A next-generation imaging spectrometer developed by a NASA jet propulsion lab is used to take images that can zero in on a 3-foot square area, according to Tom Kampe, NEON's assistant director for remote sensing.

Kampe said one of the planes already flew over the Colorado burn scar left by the Hyde Park fire and will fly again this year. The detailed imagery will help scientists map the progression of erosion due to rain storms and to what extent the vegetation is recovering over the years, he said.

The foundation is also looking into the correlation between pine beetle infestations in forests to frequency of wildfires — something characterized as massive problem in the western United States.

Blood said collecting and analyzing such broad-level information is critical, even in the face of the federal budget crunch, because it will help agencies and communities better respond to natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes or flooding.

"It is important that we have the basic science information so we understand better how to manage them before and after," she said.

Foundation officials like to compare NEON to an electrocardiogram.

"NEON will be to ecological health what an EKG is to heart health," according to the foundation's website. "Like an EKG generates snapshots of heart health by measuring heart activity at strategic locations on a patient's body, NEON will generate snapshots of ecosystem health by measuring ecological activity at strategic locations throughout the U.S."

Scientists and engineers will use NEON to carry out real-time ecological studies spanning all levels of biolological organization, measuring at both a geographic scale and those changes over time.

The idea is to gather data at a detailed extent that answers questions about the current and future health of Earth's ecology.

Answers to that question have traditionally been inadequate because of the often narrow scope of ecological studies, said Dave Tazik, a project scientist and director of NEON's director of biology.

"This is a very unique enterprise in many ways," he said. "Ecological science has traditionally been done at relatively small scales, from local sites to local landscapes and ecosystems, so it is a challenge in that ecologists are now being engaged in an enterprise where we are dealing with large engineering systems and large-scale project management. So it is a large transition and a fundamental change in the way we do ecology."

In its description of a permit application for the Red Butte site, the Forest Service said NEON will collect site-based data about climate and atmosphere, soils, streams, ponds and a variety of organisms. The Red Butte area is a collection point for both aquatic and land-based data representing the Great Basin region.

The Murray and Tooele County sites are also in that region, while the Moab site falls into the southern Rockies eco-region.

Overall, the NEON project involves construction of a new national observatory, and NEON's technology will also foster a virtual laboratory to promote understanding of the correlation between environmental change and biological processes.

The preliminary work requiring a permit at the Red Butte site is under review by the federal agency in Salt Lake City. The site analysis there will help in the design of towers and other instruments for use at 106 locations in the continental United States, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.

"I think it's going to set a precedent and a standard for research for the next century," Tazik said, "so it's very cutting-edge and very exciting to be involved in what I would say is an extremely cool project."


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