Research Ecologist Tom Stohlgren. USGS photograph.
By Juliette Wilson1
For many years, USGS Research Ecologist Tom Stohlgren has been at the forefront of developing and implementing ways of collecting, sharing, and relating information on non-native invasive species that plague native ecosystems and challenge public land managers in the United States. In particular, Dr. Stohlgren has focused on developing the capability to rapidly assess changes in biodiversity and identify habitats vulnerable to invasion. He and his team have built ecological forecasting models that combine field data with satellite and other remotely-sensed data, incorporating various data “layers” that include soils, the mix of native and non-native vegetation, climate, and other measures.
Lately, a new national infrastructure for monitoring ecological systems and trends has been taking advantage of his expertise. The National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, is “a proposed continental-scale research platform for discovering and understanding the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species on ecology”2 (Fig. 1). Dr. Stohlgren has been working with scientists from other agencies, academia, and the private sector that constitute this significant effort, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. To find out more about the network and his and USGS’ role in it, I interviewed Dr. Stohlgren on March 27, 2009, a snowy, blowy morning in Fort Collins, Colo. The following is excerpted from our conversation:
JW: Tell me about NEON. What exactly is the “NEON Observatory Design”?
TS: NEON is a proposed national-scale system of “ecological weather stations”—for example, towers that will measure wind, solar radiation, temperature, precipitation, particulates, and gasses such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and sulfur, integrated with ecological field data and remotely sensed data. It will be a facility with instruments, places, data, and equipment for thousands of potential uses by the scientific community, including outreach and education, a major component. NEON data will be available to the public as it’s collected—a cultural change in the way science is generally conducted because we can benefit from it immediately. NEON will encourage people to share data so we can monitor, model, and predict important environmental events.
The Observatory Design Plan includes 20 stationary, core-area sites and up to 40 “relocatable sites”—sites that can be used for maybe 5 or more years at a time, then relocated to get more detailed measurements from different biomes and vegetation types, or under different land-use scenarios where you might be expecting climate change or an invasion. NEON will capture the “leading edges” [expanding boundaries] of such environmental threats.
JW: How did you get involved?
TS: NEON came to FORT (USGS Fort Collins Science Center), and me, in the planning and formulation stage in early 2007. Our research team had a lot of expertise in certain areas where they [NEON] needed help. They recognized the USGS as a leader in long-term ecological research, invasive species science, and remote sensing. They also recognized the ISS (FORT's Invasive Species Science Branch) team’s expertise in scaling issues. Scaling involves moving from tiny data points on the ground to “domains” (20 distinct eco-climatic zones in the U.S.) to the continent, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
JW: What exactly are you doing?
TS: I was initially on the Program Review Committee, which set the stage for the planning documents that went to the National Science Foundation [NSF]. The review committees helped to evaluate and improve, review, and make suggestions to the planning documents, including what to measure (species, physical characteristics, atmospheric components, and so forth), where to build, costs and efficiencies, what sensors to mount, etc. It was very detailed!
Now, as a USGS science liaison, I’m helping to field-test some of the biological sampling protocols and a variety of field techniques at the Central Plains Experimental Range (CPER), one of the 20 core sites. These include small-mammal traps and designs, plant diversity (including invasives), pitfall traps for invertebrates—generally, how to stratify an ecological landscape and a domain for future sampling to assist NEON in scaling up from point measurements to a national ecological observatory. Data gathered using these sampling protocols and techniques will be merged with other people’s data sets and remote sensing information to allow extrapolations through space and time, and be able to focus on leading edges of invasion, land-use change, and climate change.
JW: After your detail is completed, is there a continuing role for you, FORT, the USGS?
TS: There seems to be a continuing role for me and FORT and the USGS to actively participate in NEON activities. Other USGS scientists are also involved, including Jill Baron3, June Thormodsgard, Jayne Belnap, and dozens of others. We’re writing proposals, working with the research aspects of NEON, coordinating research activities on core and relocatable sites, contributing national-scale remote sensing layers, and providing expertise where needed. Many of the NEON goals are a perfect fit with USGS expertise. We are building involvement in NEON-related activities, both within USGS and with other agencies and partners, through regular conference calls. Also, special outreach sessions will be held at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Albuquerque in August .
JW: What do you see as the biggest challenges?
TS: I only see opportunities; say, to write mutually beneficial proposals to the NSF, and to collaborate with investigators from around the country. There are no barriers. Colleagues in and outside of the USGS are willing to get involved. There’s really nothing holding anyone back from getting involved at some level.
JW: And the biggest benefits?
TS: What a great place to work! The concept and the people are inspiring because of the opportunity to make scientific breakthroughs, share information, to truly create a national ecological observatory network. How much more fun can we have as scientists? NEON is thinking 30 years out—it’s a major change in the way we plan projects (more than 1, 2, 3 years). They’re in it for the long haul, and the greatest benefits will come from integrating our research and monitoring with the broader NEON effort over time.
JW: What will success look like for your role?
TS: If my contributions are useful to them and working together is creating better protocols and creating a long-lasting network, I couldn’t be happier. It’s the concept of putting the “we” and not the “I” in science.
JW: And success for NEON? That is, what will we have when it’s fully functional?
TS: NEON has seven major science thrusts or “Environmental Grand Challenges”: climate change impacts, land-use impacts, invasive species, biogeochemistry, ecohydrology, biodiversity, and infectious diseases. The whole point is to make progress in all of those areas, all of which overlap with USGS Science Strategy goals. I think it’s going to accelerate learning. It’s going to connect the local citizenry with national-scale issues. That’s the outreach and education piece that is sort of the glue that holds the program together.
JW: Anything else you’d like to say about your experience in this effort?
TS: I have never had so much fun as a scientist. In terms of productivity and writing, it’s been really stimulating!
1ASRC Management Services, under contract to the U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center, Fort Collins, Colo.
2 “What is NEON?", accessed April 10, 2009.