The launch of an ecological monitoring network is good news at a difficult time.
After years of wrangling, scientists in the United States are set to wire up the natural landscape to a state-of-the-art environmental monitoring system. The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) will take Mother Nature's pulse and track her vital signs during both bad times and good.
In the coming years, NEON will pour massive quantities of biological and physical data from plains, forests and lakes into computer spreadsheets to look for trends (see page 135). It is a bold initiative whose time has clearly come, but it will take more than the flip of the on switch to make NEON glow.
The project's elegance is appealing, but behind its beguiling simplicity lurk a number of potential pitfalls. Some are technical: it would be foolhardy to underestimate the challenge of collecting hundreds of data streams in a uniform manner across dozens of sites and over the course of decades. Others are social and institutional: ecologists have long gathered data independently; NEON represents a dramatic shift towards the kind of collective data-driven system that physicists and astronomers have been pursuing for decades. How will it be received on the ground? And what's more, how many scientists will be ready to use the data when they come in?
The plan for NEON is to develop a healthy community of scientists who can make good use of the data. There are no guarantees, but the project is a risk worth taking. Human pressure on the biosphere will only escalate, and the sooner scientists get a firm handle on what that means the better. NEON could be a powerful tool for those investigations. And, in an exceedingly difficult fiscal environment, the new ecological network represents a refreshingly forward-looking initiative. Ecologists (and headline writers) everywhere should welcome it.