"Eco Hubble" to Bring Nature Data to the Public

February 26, 2009

A network of ecological "satellites" set to monitor environmental change could do for ecology what the Hubble Space Telescope has done for astronomy, researchers say.

Since 1991 raw data from Hubble have been made publicly available for use by professional researchers, educators, and citizen scientists via an online catalog.

"The public can access [the data] and do their own research," said Hubble spokesperson Ray Villard. "They paid for it. They deserve it."

A similar open-access model is key to the National Ecological Network Observatory, or NEON, a new program set to be up and running by 2016.

NEON will link together already existing field stations across the U.S. that are using planes and orbiters, ground-level sensors, and human-run labs to monitor activity in the wild.

The project will look for changes related to climate, biodiversity, invasive species, and other environmental issues.

National Resource

Each of the project's 20 candidate sites represents a different habitat in the United States, from the neotropical zones of Puerto Rico to the cold, dry mountains of the Northern Rockies.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, NEON program managers plan to collect and archive data online for at least 30 years.

NEON will cost an estimated 300 million U.S. dollars to set up and about 60 million U.S. dollars a year to maintain, once operational.

The information can be used by scientists to conduct studies, by policymakers to make science-related decisions, and by educators to teach students about the environment.

(Related: "NASA Tool Helps Track Whale Sharks, Polar Bears.")

NEON will also create opportunities for the public to aid scientists in conducting field research, said senior team member Carol Brewer, a biologist at the University of Montana.

"By participating in citizen science endeavors, individuals can increase their knowledge of the natural world as well as increase their understanding of science, nature, and the role humans play in shaping the environment," Brewer said.

(NEON is described in the February 27, 2009, issue of the journal Science.)




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