Mapping Ecological Change with NEON

Caitlin Dempsey


With Earth Day nearing, it is an opportune time to highlight a developing project, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).  

Funding the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

NEON is funded by the National Science Foundation.  Elizabeth Blood, the National Science Foundation program director responsible for overseeing NEON, Dave Tazik, NEON’s director of biology and project scientist, and Tom Kampe, NEON’s assistant director for remote sensing recently explained in a press conference what the NEON program is.

What is NEON?

NEON collects data from 106 locations around the United States to allow for ecological study at regional and continental scales. Those locations were selected to represent twenty eco-climatic domains representing ecosystems across the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.  

This suite of observation network will provide a standardized set of protocols and procedures that will enable a continental view of ecological conditions.  The NEON team explained that consistency of the data collected over the 106 locations will allow a degree of precision not currently available. 

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Map showing the twenty eco-climatic domains and 106 NEON data collection sites.
Map showing the twenty eco-climatic domains and 106 NEON data collection sites.

Collating data from a multitude of research projects currently results in a lot of statistical noise because of differing conditions under which those researchers collected that data.

To select those sites, data was gathered from every square km of the US and integrated into a statistical model.  From that model, the country was divided into 25,000 partitions and then further analyzed to see what the minimum number of eco-climatic divisions there are in the United States using a process called multivariate geographic clustering

From within those divisions, 800 potential sites were analyzed to determine the best representative sites for those eco-climatic domains as well as sites representing gradients of change within a domain.  Of the 106 sites ultimately selected,  60 are terrestrial and 46 are aquatic.

NEON will provide data on such themes as urban ecology, agriculture systems, forest management, impact of nitrogen deposition gradients, climate change, and aquatic ecosystems.

Those sensors will be located in streams, soils, and towers, as well as via planes to simultaneously collect data across the country.  Additional ad hoc sensors will collect extreme event information such as wildfires, drought, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

Remote Sensing via NEON

Airborne observations will collect images of regional landscapes and vegetation.  The airborne remote sensing component of NEON will be used for monitoring vegetation and terrestrial ecology.  

There are three primary instruments in what Tom Kampe, NEON’s assistant director for remote sensing, refers to at the airborne observation program (AOP).  Those three instruments are an imaging spectrometer, light instrument, and a digital camera.  

The imaging spectrometer will be able to differentiate between vegetation types, soil, dead or health vegetation, and plant species.  The light instrument (LiDAR) will collect structural information and canopy height. The AOP will fly at an altitude of 1000 meters and collect data at a resolution of 1 meter.  

Each NEON site and a surrounding buffer area of 300 km2 will be surveyed each year by the AOP. Kampe explained that the airborne platform is the link between the site-based measurements and remote sensing information that is broad scale and will provide a link between different scales of information.  

Kampe also explained that the imaging spectrometer is a next generation technology developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  This instrument has greater sensitivity and spatial resolution (one-meter as compared to four-meter) along with better spectral information.  

This instrument will provide greater insight into biochemical parameters, plant greenness (dead versus live vegetation), and the measurement of plant distribution.

Regional and Continental Ecological Observation

The collection of geographic data from these diverse locations will enable scientists the ability to sense large scale problems in the health of the US ecosystems.  

While various agencies have been collecting ecological, topographical, and environmental data, the main thrust of Neon is to create a standardized and integrated source of data to drive what officials refer to as an “apples to apples comparison” of the health of US’ ecosystems at regional and national scales over time.  This will allow for the study of large-scale ecological trends over decades as well as seasonal and annual variations.  

The standardized and calibrated data will be packaged and made available via NEON’s web portal to the public.

Timeline for NEON Implementation

NEON is in the preliminary phases of implementation, with full functionality by 2017.  Planned operation of NEON is through to 2047.  

This will provide 30 years of ecological data in order for researchers to understand the impacts of climate change, land use change and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity. The end goal is to be able to forecast ecological change based on the spatial and temporal data collected.

Early NEON Projects

One of the early NEON projects was the study of the ecological impacts of the huge High Park Wildfire of Colorado in 2012.  The study will be used to improve predictions of post-fire flooding, erosion, forest rejuvenation, and wildlife behavior.

A second project, Project BudBurst, involves the participation of 13,000 citizens to collection plant information to allow researchers the ability to study impacts of climate change.

Making NEON’s Data Available for Free

The geographic GIS and remote sensing data, models, and educational resources will be made available to the public via the NEON web site.  

NEON is considered a collaborative scientific enterprise with free and open access to the data:

NEON’s open-access approach to its data and information products will enable scientists, educators, planners, decision makers and the public to map, understand and predict the effects of human activities on ecology and effectively address critical ecological questions and issues.

The first data from six locations that will begin operations this summer should be ready in the fall.  Once the program is operational, there will typically be a 30-45 day lag period between data collection and its availability for public consumption.  

All data collected from each of the NEON sites is standardized before being released.  The spatial resolution of the data sets will vary, depending on the instrument or observational system.

For now, users can request select prototype data from NEON via its Prototype Data Sharing page.  Future data will be available via NEON’s web portal which is currently under construction.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.