The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will play a key role in finding solutions to what the National Science Foundation (NSF) has deemed the "most important, demanding and urgent global problems of our time."
The two will team up to participate in NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network), the nation's first continental-scale ecological observatory, to answer questions that deal with the effects of global change: climate change, the spread of invasive species and changes in biodiversity.
"The major challenges that are facing humanity are ecological," said Nate Sanders, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who is involved in the project. "These challenges include dealing with global change and providing food for an ever-increasing population that is being increasingly affected by climate change. Each of these components will be dealt with by NEON."
Funded by the NSF, NEON is an organization which will receive $434 million for construction of the observatory network, which consists of 20 eco-climate core sites scattered around the U.S. Each core site will have an array of sensory equipment for monitoring climate, soils, water, biodiversity and the atmosphere. The core site in our region will be located at ORNL with future observation sites in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and also at a site in southwest Virginia. The core site's location is closer to a university than any of the other planned core sites, creating ample research opportunities.
"The best way to learn about science is to do science," said Sanders. "Students will be able to tackle these most pressing ecological problems. They will be able to hop in a van and go to the satellite site in the Smokies for field-based research and then head to the core site at ORNL to process the data and compare their results to those at other sites to see if what we are experiencing is happening elsewhere in the country."
The goal of NEON is to detect and enable forecasting of ecological change at a continental scale. It is hoped that the project's science-based discovery will inform policy to preserve national resources, economic vitality, health, quality of life and national security. According to the NSF, recent assessments indicate that U.S. ecosystems will experience abrupt and unpredictable changes due to human-caused global change in the near future.
"The global community of scientists is 99 percent certain climate change is happening and will happen," said Sanders. "Our goal is to tell the rest of the world the consequences of it." Using cutting-edge technology such as airborne observation, mobile and fixed data collection sites, and trained field crews, scientists will be able to calibrate, store and publish information into a cyber-information structure—a collection of linked computers. All NEON data and information products will be made available in near real-time to scientists, educators, students, decision makers and the public.
Construction on the first NEON sites in Colorado and New England is slated to begin this fall. Construction in Tennessee is slated to begin soon thereafter. NEON plans to begin full operations at some of the completed sites in late 2012.
Sanders has collaborated with Colleen Iversen and Pat Mulholland, staff scientists at ORNL in environmental sciences, on the project. Others from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and area agencies, universities and colleges will also be heavily involved.
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