Following a rigorous review process, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park’s 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., was recently selected as a candidate core site for the National Ecological Observatory Network, a planned continental-scale ecological observatory. This national observatory will consist of fixed and mobile sensors located in 20 wild areas across the continental United States, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. NEON is a project of the National Science Foundation.
The Conservation and Research Center is NEON’s candidate core site for the mid-Atlantic region. Candidate core sites were selected through analysis of more than 90 proposed locations in 20 ecoclimatic regions in the United States. Sites were chosen that best represent the ecological and climatic characteristics of their specific region.
Instruments on towers erected at the core sites will take continuous readings of a variety of climate and ecological data, such as atmospheric chemistry, soil moisture and biogeochemistry, solar radiation, forest canopy microclimates, precipitation and temperature. The NEON design also includes instruments that will track patterns and changes in small streams, as well as scientific staff who will collect samples of a variety of organisms at each site, such as birds, fish, plants, small mammals and microbes. Invasive species and organisms that transmit disease will be of special interest to ecologists at all domains. NEON will collect data for at least 30 years, a period considered adequate by scientists to observe most ecological trends at the continental scale.
Low-altitude remote sensing aircraft will periodically observe and record changing land-use patterns, plant diversity and vegetation structure at each site and its surroundings. NEON also will support the assessment and analysis of land use and land cover changes, which may include satellite remote sensing data supplied by National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In addition to the candidate core site at the Conservation and Research Center, NEON will be working with scientists to deploy relocatable instruments at another site in its Mid-Atlantic region.
NEON is on schedule for a final design review with the National Science Foundation in 2009. If an award is made for construction, the plan is to build NEON over approximately five to seven years in order to spread out costs and reduce risk.
“For the Smithsonian, NEON will represent a renaissance in ecological research as we create new scientific and education synergies that will allow ecological forecasting,” said Francisco Dallmeier, head of the National Zoo’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability. “It is a dream come true to be able to integrate the many forms of ecological research and monitoring that we do at the Smithsonian with a national network of top scientists backed by state-of-the-art instrumentation and infrastructure. With 30 years of commitment from NEON and NSF, the Smithsonian is well positioned to lead scientific discoveries and educational programs to empower the next generation of forecast ecologists in addressing the grand environmental challenges of this century.”
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. Taken together, data from NEON’s 20 ecoclimatic domains in the United States will enable forecasting of the future states of ecological systems on a continental scale.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center maintains one of the world’s most extensive programs in conservation biology research and professional international training dedicated to saving wildlife and habitat, restoring species to the wild and other aspects of monitoring and conserving biodiversity. Approximately 70 percent of the land at the Center is dedicated to ecological and biodiversity research and monitoring. The Conservation and Research Center, together with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are part of the Smithsonian Global Earth Observatories network, a project that will add significant value to NEON’s ecological research and educational programs.
The Conservation and Research Center is part of the ecological wildlife and biodiversity corridor that links the Shenandoah National Park, national forests and other forested areas of the region. It houses between 30 and 40 endangered species at any given time, and its research facilities include a geographic information system lab, endocrine and gamete labs, a veterinary clinic, biodiversity monitoring network of plots, a network of partners and research sites throughout the region, as well as a conference center, dormitories and education offices.