NEON site at Blandy

Posted: April 1, 2013

The Winchester Star

Workers assemble an 800-foot-long walkway and a tower for the NEON observatory being built at the State Arboretum at Blandy Experimental Farm in Clarke County. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

BOYCE — A tower rising in a field at the State Arboretum at Blandy Experimental Farm will help the National Science Foundation (NSF) gather data on the environment across the entire North American continent.

The project is called NEON — National Ecological Observatory Network, according to Blandy director David Carr. And it will be the biggest investigation into terrestrial ecology ever done.

Congress has set aside $434 million for the project, which will take at least 30 years to complete, according to Jennifer Walton, public affairs manager for NEON.

Sixty sites currently under construction will collect information on climate changes, land use changes, changes in plant species, both native and invasive, and diseases in 20 areas of the United States as well as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.

The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and to secure the national defense.”

The NSF is footing the entire cost of the tower construction at Blandy, which is part of the University of Virginia.

Walton had no firm figures on the cost of the Blandy site, because each site is different, depending on topography and climate. Nevertheless, equipment at each site will collect the same data in the same way.

The NEON study is a massive undertaking.

As part of the project, the United States has been divided into 20 “domains” with a “Core Site” in each, Walton said.

In Domain 2, which covers basically the mid-Atlantic region, the core site will be at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.

The Blandy site, with its tower and other facilities, is a relocatable site, Carr explained. After five years, NEON may decide to move it to another location to gather more data.

“We’re not necessarily a permanent site,” Carr said.

The mid-Atlantic region offers a challenge, he added, because of the wide range of climate, from the Ridge and Valley area of the Shenandoah to the coastal estuaries of the Tidewater.

“That’s an awful lot of area to cover,” with a huge diversity of plant life and climate, Carr said.

The Blandy site was chosen because it can offer a look into the change that takes place when an area, once under cultivation, reverts back to a wild state.

A field, Carr explained, is a net carbon producer.

Short-lived plants die at the end of the summer and release carbon back into the atmosphere as they decay.

But a fallow field becomes home to woody species like shrubs and then trees.

A forest takes up carbon in trunks, branches and roots, Carr said, removing it from the atmosphere and storing it for decades. A large enough forest can reach “equilibrium” as far as carbon dynamics are concerned.

Also, Carr said, the 40-acre field Blandy is dedicating to the project will allow scientists to follow the progress of invasive species which attempt to colonize an available habitat.

“That’s another focus,” Carr said, adding that invasives of all kinds are “a real problem.”

The new tower will hold a variety of instruments that will take 530 different measurements. And it’s tall enough to avoid being influenced by the vegetation in the field.

Before construction could begin, scientists had to dig several pits in the field and actually calculate the amount of root mass the field holds.

In addition to the tower, the NSF built a small structure to hold instruments that are temperature sensitive.

There also is a boardwalk that will extend across the center of the field to allow scientists to monitor plants and take samples without actually touching the soil or trampling the vegetation.

If the site is removed from Blandy, the NSF will pay to restore the field to its original condition, Carr said.

What is unique about the study, Carr said, is that the same information, gathered in the same way from various locations, will be available to scientists nationwide.

“It will be a new model for all environmental science,” Carr said.

According to Walton, NEON will provide “a bigger picture” over a longer period of time.

And, she said, anyone will be able to go online and find all the data, so both researchers and citizens can access any of the information collected.

“NEON,” Carr said, “will be a watershed transition.”

For more information on construction site progress, go to neoninc.org.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com