Ecology aims high: the United States is sinking nearly half-a-billion dollars into a grand ecological observatory, but the project has been dogged by budget overruns and delays
Overgrown shrubs thwack the sides of a pick-up truck as it bounces along a dirt road through a forest in western Virginia. On the drive, ecologist Ty Lindberg calls out the names of the invasive species crowding either side of the path. There is mile-a-minute weed, which spreads with alarming speed. A flowering annual called Asian stiltgrass carpets the ground and stifles native plants. And a particularly prickly species of rose tears at the clothes of anybody who ventures too close. "My field techs don't enjoy that one" Lindberg says.
Farther along, he stops the car at a break in the brush and picks his way through the undergrowth towards a set of plastic and aluminium stakes poking out of the ground. They mark out a 40-by-40-metre plot, one of dozens scattered throughout 1,300 hectares of forest and pasture near the town of Front Royal. From April to October, field technicians spend their days cataloguing the location, diameter and height of nearly every tree in the plot, collecting fallen leaves out of a trap and archiving pressings from invasive plants. Their main goal is to measure the ecosystems metabolism, especially how much biomass it generates each year.
At other plots, technicians trap rodents and draw blood samples to test for diseases, including those that could spread to humans. The staff collects and stores ticks and beetles, and takes soil samples to study the bacteria underfoot. Higher up in the hills, a 50-metre-tall metal tower juts above the trees, loaded with long booms holding sensors that monitor air temperature, wind speed and solar radiation at multiple altitudes. When the tower has its final instrument package installed in 2016, it will watch the forest breathe by monitoring how carbon dioxide and water vapour concentrations rise and fall.
This site is one of more than 80 planned for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a US$434-million project to build a biological observatory that spans the United States. Its goals are grand. If all goes well, it will document the effects that climate change and land use have on ecosystems and provide scientists with a nearly real-time measure of the country's ecological vital signs. Many of the sites will operate for three decades, whereas others will be packed up and relocated periodically in response to environmental changes. And the data collected will be freely available to all through an online portal.
Lindberg, who manages three NEON sites in Virginia and Maryland, says that the long-term record generated by NEON could transform ecology by helping scientists to answer questions ranging from how invasive species are altering the landscape to how quickly infectious diseases are spreading through ecosystems. The network, he says, "is really an instrument'! Ecologists call it their first foray into big science--a massive project that rivals the scale of big-budget physics facilities such as particle colliders or telescopes (see 'Sentry posts').
But ecologists have not had an easy journey into the world of big science. During its five-year construction phase, NEON has encountered...