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Predicting the Unpredictable: NEON Clears Another Hurdle

Thursday, Feb. 04, 2010

NEON prototype tower

A NEON prototype tower at Colorado's Table Mountain. Similar towers, outfitted with environmental monitoring equipment, will be erected at sites in NEON’s 20 eco-domains throughout the United States.

USU College of Science Dean Jim MacMahon

College of Science Dean Jim MacMahon serves as chair of the board of directors of the massive National Ecological Observatory Network.

NEON logo
Recent developments in a massive environmental monitoring project have Utah State University College of Science Dean Jim MacMahon feeling optimistic.
“We’ve successfully completed a National Science Foundation Final Design Review,” says MacMahon, who chairs the board of directors of the National Ecological Observatory Network, better known as NEON. “And President Obama’s 2011 budget has allotted $433 million for construction.”
Once established, the huge NSF-funded network will allow scientists to continuously monitor thousands of environmental measurements throughout the nation. During the past five years, the Boulder, Colo.-based, project has tapped the expertise of nearly 2,000 scientists, along with specialists in finance, logistics and environmental law, and assembled a staff of about 100 to craft the project’s plan and budget. If all goes as planned, 62 sites will be constructed across the nation by 2016 that will collect information about the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity.
“It’s a monumental task — nothing has been attempted on this scale before,” says MacMahon, trustee professor of biology and director of USU’s Ecology Center. “With the data we collect, we’ll be able to understand environmental disturbances in much more detail than ever before.”
Selection of observatory sites involved identifying and mapping the nation’s unique eco-climate domains based on new, statistically rigorous analyses of eco-climatic variables. NEON established 20 domains; Utah straddles two: The West’s Great Basin and the Four Corners area’s Southern Rockies-Colorado Plateau.
“Each NEON domain will have one core observatory site as well as two relocatable sites to collect varied data sets,” MacMahon says. “Specially equipped vehicles and aircraft will also be used to collect very detailed analytical images of large areas.”
Core observatory sites will use towers — modeled on wildfire watch towers — outfitted with sophisticated environmental and meteorological monitoring equipment.
Taken together, MacMahon says, the core sites will provide a baseline for comparing ecological conditions that can be used to develop and test ecological models.
“We’ll be able to integrate a lot of different approaches to ecology and predict what we call ‘ecological thresholds,’” he says. “These thresholds are sudden environmental changes that occur in very short periods.”
Past ecological thresholds of note include the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that reduced the southern Great Plains to wasted farmland and roiling dust storms.
“NEON offers transformational opportunities,” MacMahon says. “It’s exciting to see tangible results from years of painstaking planning and to see the project moving forward.”
Related links:
Contact: Jim MacMahon, 435-797-3515,
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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