MANDAN, N.D. _ A 26-foot tower in Mandan could aid in answering questions on climate change and the spread of disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory is a host site for National Ecological Observatory Network, a new federally funded, national ecological data-gathering project. It is one of 60 sites being built nationwide. The project will span the whole country and cover different layers of the ecosystem.
“No other project has taken on something with this kind of scale both in size and length,” said Andrea Anteau, NEON field operations manager for North Dakota.
The tower and scientists will gather 578 different data points over the next thirty years. The raw data will be public, allowing professional and amateur scientists alike to access it.
Anteau said data measured will include temperature, precipitation, chemicals in the air and soil, and measures of the bird, mammal and insect populations.
The Mandan site is one of three NEON sites in North Dakota that will be headed up by Anteau, a former research scientist and science teacher.
Anteau will manage the projects’ scientists, equipment and data reporting. She said it is her dream job, allowing her to combine her love of scientific research and education.
Construction of the full project will cost $434 million and be complete by 2017, said NEON Communications Manager Jennifer Walton. The money is coming from the National Science Foundation, which funds major research projects with high start-up costs. Projects like telescopes are built out of the same account, Walton said.
Each tower site is estimated to cost $1 million. Walton said there is no estimate on operating costs yet.
Construction started in Mandan at the end of June. Builders will finish the Mandan tower and two more towers in Woodworth in the next couple of weeks, Anteau said. Next July, they will put sensors in place, which will be able to measure gases over an 800 foot area on a windy day. By 2015, all North Dakota sites should be operational.
Anteau will be based out of a Jamestown facility being completed at the end of the month. She will have six full-time scientists and
25 summer technicians to set traps and look at plants. All of the data collected will be sent back to computer hubs in Colorado and most will be viewable in real time online at data.neoninc.org.
Facilities in Colorado, Florida and Massachusetts are already operational. Anteau said the North Dakota facilities, along with facilities in the Ozarks and Appalachians, will be among the next to open.
Anteau said the first facilities will allow scientists to make sure the program’s data-gathering protocol will work at multiple sites.
Walton said that concept of gathering the same information at every site the same way is part of what makes NEON unique. She said other long-term ecological research plans have not allowed for comparison. The NEON method will allow one issue to be linked to another on a national scale.
Anteau said NEON also is trying to find similar data from scientists in other countries and has designed it to eventually expand the project worldwide.
The project is different in its longer lifespan as well, Anteau said. She said most research projects answer a single question and end after five years.
“Ecology has a longer cycle than the average five year study,” she said. A study may only be done during a dry season or wet season and trends found may be attributed to a particular cycle.
Anteau also said when scientists do research projects, the data they collect remains unavailable to others. She won’t be hiring scientists to interpret data. Her scientists will collect it for others to use in research projects.
“It’s a matter of creating information without a conflict of interest,” she said.
Data involving different specialties will be collected and will encourage collaboration across different types of science. Walton said it is also the expectation that research findings from NEON data will be published in a central place for others to view.
Matt Sanderson, the USDA’s Mandan laboratory director, said his facility will benefit from the data that is collected.
He said he doesn’t have scientists with specialties in all areas of the data collected but other labs might. Because of NEON’s public access, his scientists could link their research with other’s findings.
“It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often,” said Cal Thorson, the lab’s technical information specialist. “The science community working together gets answers.”