A new nationwide environmental monitoring network will start collecting data next year at 60 sites.
The National Environmental Observatory Network, or NEON, is designed to detect and forecast ecological change. Scientists from around the region met in Fargo this week to talk about the project.
Scientists are always gathering environmental data for various research projects. Michael Keller, chief of science for the new network, said most are short-term projects, about three years on average. This new project has a 30-year timeframe.
"In order to be able to manage ecosystems in the future we need to understand them, we need to learn to predict what they're going to do, we need to analyze them and model them," Keller said. "In a usual grant, they might be able to get enough data to build a model and test it year after year after year for 30 years."
Keller said it's like predicting weather. The more years of weather observations forecasters have the more accurate their forecast models become.
It's taken nearly a decade of planning to get the National Environmental Observatory Network off the ground. The first data will be collected next year and it will take several years to build all of the research facilities. Data will be collected by remote sensors, researchers in the field, airplanes flying over the sites and satellites.
The U.S. is divided into 20 domains or eco regions. North Dakota will host one of 20 permanent research stations.
“In order to be able to manage ecosystems in the future we need to understand them.”Michael Keller, NEON chief of science
North Dakota State University Associate Professor Wei Lin is coordinator of the northern prairie domain. He said the data will help answer big-picture questions about climate change, biodiversity and land use. He also said having a observatory network site nearby is a great opportunity for researchers and students.
"There's a lot of experts in different departments on campus and this will bring people together to do cutting edge research and working together as a team to be part of a national initiative," Lin said.
Lin said hosting an environmental observatory site might help bring additional research dollars to NDSU. For example, he said researchers at NDSU are interested in building better remote sensors to monitor environmental change.
There won't be a permanent research site in Minnesota. The state is split between the prairie and Great Lakes eco regions.
Professor David Biesboer directs the University of Minnesota Lake Itasca research lab. He said Minnesota might not be part of the national data collection project, but students will benefit from the research happening in North Dakota.
"What I hope is that, because our field station is only a couple of hours away, we can have more personal interactions," Biesboer said. "Educational activities, seminars, learning how to use equipment; enriching the lives of our graduates and undergraduates."
The environmental observation project will collect massive amounts of data about each ecosystem. The North Dakota site will collect data about wetlands and grasslands.
U.S. Geological Survey Researcher Larry Tieszen said that data will give researchers a better picture of what's happening to wetlands across the prairie pothole region.
"I really see its great value being to provide nodes which we can model performance of an ecosystem and then use that model to extend the applications of it within the region," Tieszen said.
Researchers say the real impact might not be seen for several years until the entire monitoring network is built. But they expect in the future scientists will be able to better predict ecosystem changes before they happen.