In the late 1990s physics was getting big money for big experiments, and we thought, why not ecology, too? The years from 1998 to 2005 were considered the "prehistory" of NEON. By 2005, we had reached the planning and conceptual design stages. Airborne remote sensing was a key element. Imaging spectroscopy is our core technology to study ecosystems. Today we focus on design and instrument development.
Over the next decade, the National Science Foundation will support the construction of a new type of observatory to allow understanding and forecasting of the continental-scale consequences of climate change, land use change and biological invasions. This observatory, NEON, is essentially a spacecraft for visiting Earth—a new type of system designed to systematically observe environmental change across the US, making simultaneous measurements at multiple spatial scales, sustained over decades. The ultimate goal of NEON is to understand climate change, land use change, and invasive species on continental scale ecology. NEON provides infrastructure to support research, education, and environmental management. The full budget for this project is half a billion dollars. Construction will begin in 2011.
In order to understand inputs, effects, connections and the like in large-scale ecosystems, we’ve got to look at a “whole-Earth” system that includes the oceans, land, peoples and chemistry of the planet. Earth is a distributed multi-scale system. We’ve identified 20 eco-climatic domains to cover the span of ecosystems in the USA (three of which are in Colorado due to the climatic diversity here). Of these, there are two types of sites: Core, or natural sites, and mobile, or manmade environments. There are also subsystems in both of these site types, including sentinel units, instrument units, airborne packages and land use analysis packages.
The fundamental sentinel unit includes human observers who look at biodiversity, population dynamics, etc. Sentinel unit sites have multiple sub-sites with different tools such as plots, instrument towers, bird observation blinds and transects for measuring energy, carbon cycle, water and more.
Airborne remote sensing is key for determining the scale of measurements and coverage. Our ideal observation scale is approximately 1-2m, to measure chemistry at the local level with sampling across kilometers. The ultimate goal is to sample EVERY tree in a forest. We want to integrate ground truth with very big-scale airborne remote sensing. To do this, we use spectroscopy, LIDAR and panoptical imagery.
We’ve planned an example mission in which two aircraft fly across the US with transits to Hawaii and Alaska, guided by carefully planned flight maps. We’ve scheduled a campaign to cover lots of ground carefully during the peak foliage greenness of each area. In planning, we considered greenness, cloud cover, routing and several other factors that could affect the quality of data. We can add “target of opportunity” flights during insect outbreaks, hurricanes or other environmental phenomena per request-based scheduling and prioritization. Other targets of opportunity include floods, wildfires and drought in El Nino years. We have an aggressive work schedule of calibration, flights and requested observations. At this time, no winter flights are planned.
The instrument we use on this mission is a follow-on of AVRIS, which includes an advanced telescope, gratings and detectors. We’ve modified it for active cooling to avoid the logistics of liquid nitrogen. The advanced technology provides research-grade performance, while the spacecraft-like design allows for long-duration operation with no maintenance, though it’s heavy and needs a lot of power to operate. Overall, it’s a good instrument with good signal-to-noise, quantitative observation and challenging science requirements.
Using three copies of a state-of-the-art device, the NEON Information System provides usable information for science, education, and policy. ASD instruments generate several levels of data: raw, calibrated, rectified, NASA standardized, and complex post-processed.
The NEON Cyber Infrastructure uses off-the-shelf and/or open-source systems to perform algorithmic processing to publish to user communities. The Infrastructure provides for both specialist and generalist use, with a wide range of users. In the past, ecology was not a predictive discipline. Going forward, NEON can help with synergism between observation and predictive science in the same way meteorology got progressively more accurate in forecasting with more and more study of the weather.
As we progress, millions of collisions between theory and observation will refine ecology to a predictive science. Ecologists will learn to be more predictive. NEON provides the volume of data and observations needed over the long-term to transform ecological science.
Q: When will it fly?
A: A demo will go up in two years, then test flights and acceptance in three years. We’ll launch successor units six to nine months apart, each. The project will be fully operational in 2016.
Q: Ecological processes are a function of weather. Does weather uncertainty make ecological prediction unreliable?
A: If we wanted to predict the exact flowering date of corn, then no, this isn’t the most reliable method. But if we wanted to predict likelihood of loss of crop due to climate change, then yes, that can be done. The goal of the climate community is to be more predictive over a 10-30 year timescale. The ecologists can use that. But it's an as-yet unexplored frontier.