Sometimes you need a lot of space to ask really big science questions. The Very Large Array in New Mexico takes up miles and miles of the desert in order to study the stars in deepest space. The Large Hadron Collider beneath the Swiss/French border is an enormous building that lets scientists peer into the pockets of atoms. But there aren’t very many equally large and impressive tools to study one of the most fascinating physical phenomena humans know: our planet itself.
This gargantuan goal is what two research initiatives at SCBI Front Royal strive to address. Each is a mammoth multi-institutional collaboration spanning continents. Each means to study systems long-term and compare and collect standardized data quantitatively. And each hopes to begin teasing apart the secrets of how planet Earth works. The two initiatives are the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories (SIGEO) and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).
SIGEO is a Smithsonian-led collaborative research program that began as a project to understand tropical forest ecosystems at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. STRI scientists began studying tropical forests to understand how they grow, change, and the myriad ways their species interact with each other and with the carbon cycle. They established 50-hectare (124-acre) forest plots where they measured, mapped, and inventoried every woody plant more than a centimeter in diameter at breast height (a standard measurement in forestry science.)
There are now more than 40 of these forest plots in tropical forests throughout Central America, South America, Asia, and Africa, each hosted by a different institution in collaboration with the Smithsonian. Many of these sites have hundreds of woody species—several of the most diverse have as many as 1,200 species in a single plot!
After these tropical forest plots had been studied for almost 20 years, scientists wanted to see how their data would compare to data collected from temperate locations using almost identical methods. Such standardized, comparable data could shine light on how forests grow, change, and affect the global carbon cycle. Having other Smithsonian units establish plots of their own seemed the best way to start, so they asked SCBI scientists and scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay to join the new SIGEO initiative. SCBI Front Royal has a 25-hectare (62-acre) SIGEO plot and SERC has one 16-hectacre (40-acre) plots. SCBI ecologist Norm Bourg manages the establishment and research projects at the SIGEO plot at SCBI. SCBI is also creating an SIGEO plot at its field station in Gabon.
Using what SCBI ecologist Bill McShea describes as, “A lot, a lot, of sticks, stakes, and measuring tapes,” SCBI scientists have mapped, tagged, and identified every woody plant on that 25-hectare plot, recording the location, age, size, and species of each one. They also set up areas within the plot where they can keep track of how much leaf and woody litter falls on the ground and how many seeds, acorns, and nuts are produced each year. By incorporating a 4-hectare fenced deer-exclusion area within the plot, they’re also tracking how deer herbivory affects the forest.
With all this detailed information, researchers will gain a wealth of insight into the biodiversity and growth of temperate forests, and how quickly they change. One of the most ambitious aspects of the research is to use these detailed measurements to calculate exactly how much carbon forests store. Specifically, how fast do the trees and other plants suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, how long do they hold onto it, and in what form do they release it? This information could hold the key to understanding, and perhaps mitigating, global climate change. As SCBI ecologist Jonathan Thompson explains, “Growing trees remains the only technology for storing carbon we thoroughly understand. They do a great a job of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.”
This type of broad-scale intensive carbon measurement mesh precisely with another continent-scale science initiative: the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). NEON is the first national ecological observation system, consisting of a network of field and laboratory sites across the United States, including Puerto Rico and Hawaii, equipped with cutting-edge technology and integrated via state-of-the-art communications. Scientists will use NEON to conduct ecological studies at all levels of biological organization, from genomes to the biosphere, in real-time and over long periods of time, and over geographical scales from regions to the entire continent—and share their data and results immediately.
NEON has identified 20 eco-climatic domains in the United States, each of which represents different terrain, topography, ecosystems, climate, and vegetation. Each domain has one core site—a place that represents the “natural” wildland conditions within each domain as closely as possible. SCBI Front Royal has been selected as the core site for the Mid-Atlantic domain, and much of the NEON research infrastructure will be placed within the same forested watershed as the SCBI SIGEO plot. This merging of the SIGEO and NEON efforts is also schedule to occur at cores sites in the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts and the Wind River Experimental Forest in Washington state.
NEON will tackle many of the same goals as SIGEO, but rather than focus on forest biodiversity, NEON will build sophisticated instrument towers to measure and track the atmosphere, soil, and physical and biological aspects of each ecosystem, and establish a system of ground survey plots to forecast the effects of major forces behind environmental change, such as climate, land use change, and invasive species, on groups of sentinel organisms including birds, small mammals, plants, and certain insects. SCBI’s instrument tower will be only about 300 meters from SCBI's SIGEO plot.
McShea explains that NEON will allow scientists to collaborate to get continent-side data: “The towers are sentinels, collecting information from the trees, the atmosphere, and underground.”
The network of towers will act as a platform for large-scale science. Individual scientists will apply to conduct research using the platform, much the same way scientists apply for time and usage of the Hubble telescope, the Very Large Array, the Large Hadron Collider, or deep-sea robots. Data from NEON sensors will be collected through the NEON cyber-infrastructure network, archived and made readily accessible to scientists, researchers, educators, decision makers and others interested in the environment.
Francisco Dallmeier, head of SCBI’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability, summarizes SCBI’s hopes for NEON. “For the Smithsonian, NEON will represent a renaissance in ecological research as we create new scientific and educational synergies that will allow ecological forecasting. It is a dream come true to be able to integrate so many forms of ecological research and monitoring that we do at the Smithsonian with a national network of scientist backed by state-of-the-art instrumentation and infrastructure.
As science moves from focusing solely on small ecosystems that one researcher or teams of researchers can conveniently study, scientists hope the standardized large-scale data collected from both NEON and SIGEO can be combined and compared in order to help us better understand—and perhaps better manage and conserve—the global ecosystem of our Earth.