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KU, K-State field stations key sites in 30-year NSF project

Monday, November 17, 2014

LAWRENCE — Biological field stations at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University soon will be part of one of the most extensive long-term initiatives in the history of the National Science Foundation.

The NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, will gather data on the causes and consequences of climate change, land use change and invasive species. The project will span a 30-year period, officially beginning in 2017, monitoring sites across the U.S., from Alaska to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

The University of Kansas Field Station and the Konza Prairie Biological Station at K-State will be among 106 key NEON sites, which include the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Harvard Forest. The Kansas sites are the only NEON sites in the multistate eco-climatic region designated through the project as the “Prairie Peninsula domain.”  

Monitoring towers equipped with environmental sensors are being installed this fall at KU, and K-State field sites are expected to be drawing provisional data by spring 2015.

“NEON is a landmark environmental study, and we’re thrilled by the opportunities this makes available for KU faculty, students and visiting researchers,” said Ed Martinko, director of the Kansas Biological Survey, which manages the KU Field Station. “All NEON’s data will go through extensive quality assessment as soon as it’s collected and will be made available quickly to the public. There’s never been an opportunity like this for scientists, teachers and people everywhere.”

NEON moved through the concept, approval and design stage from 2006 through 2012. Since 2012, it has been building monitoring sites, with some already streaming provisional data.

To choose monitoring sites representing the full range of U.S. ecological and climate diversity, scientists working with NEON used an algorithmic process to divide the country into 20 eco-climatic domains, including the Prairie Peninsula— also known as Domain 06 — that were very different from one another. Each domain represents distinct landforms, vegetation types, climates and ecosystem processes.

Every domain will have three key sites, including one “core” site. The monitoring tower at each core site will be permanent and is to remain in place for at least the 30-year period. The other two sites, known as relocatable sites, will each have a tower in place for five to 10 years, after which the towers may be moved or remain in place.

In the Prairie Peninsula, the core site is at the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie, which is jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and K-State and managed by the K-State Division of Biology. A relocatable site is also at Konza. The other relocatable site is at the KU Field Station’s primary research area, about 1,800 contiguous acres north of Lawrence. This area is held by the KU Endowment Association and managed by the Kansas Biological Survey at KU.

Monitoring at each of NEON’s 20 domains will be overseen by a resident field operations manager. Jennifer Smith, manager in the Prairie Peninsula domain, arrived in Manhattan, Kansas, this fall from Missoula, Montana. Smith recently completed a doctorate in organismal biology and ecology from the University of Montana, where she did research in the state’s intermountain grasslands. Before beginning graduate work, she was involved in ecological research with the University of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Smith will manage all field personnel and logistics for data sampling in Domain 06.

“NEON sites in Kansas are unique, providing data on both stable tallgrass prairie and prairie as it transitions into eastern deciduous forest,” Smith said. “I’m in awe of the state’s grasslands. It’s a precious ecosystem in which to be conducting research. What NEON has undertaken is unprecedented and likely will serve as a model to the rest of the world. I’m excited to be in Kansas and look forward to interacting with anyone interested in NEON.”

Each tower site will include a variety of environmental sensors on the tower and in the soil. Seasonal field crews will collect samples at the monitoring sites, including small mammals; beetles, mosquitoes and ticks; plants; and soil. An airplane equipped with a remote sensing platform will fly over sites annually to collect aerial data.

All NEON data and information products will be free and openly available in near real-time to scientists, educators, students, decision-makers and the public. Its infrastructure can be used as a baseline for long-term ecological studies. NEON also will provide educational resources and citizen science programs.

Konza was chosen as a core site because of its representative vegetation and existing historical data available from past research there, said Jeff Taylor, NEON assistant director for biometeorology.

John Blair, University Distinguished Professor at K-State and principal investigator of the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research program, said NEON would provide state-of-the-art instrumentation for measuring ecological processes and environmental change — complementing more than 30 years of experiments and measurements at Konza as part of the NSF-funded LTER program.

“The co-location of NEON infrastructure and the Konza LTER program also will provide unique research and training opportunities for students and scientists at institutions throughout Kansas and beyond,” Blair said.

The KU Field Station was chosen by NEON as a monitoring site because of its transitional nature. The Field Station, which spans four sites in eastern Kansas, is located within the prairie-forest ecotone, or transition zone, of the continental U.S. The effects of specific land management practices have been a subject of decades-long research at the Field Station.

“It was a tallgrass prairie in 1850 but, due to changes in land management practices, and presumably fire suppression management, the current forest has invaded and expanded to what it is now,” Taylor (of NEON) said. “This forest growing in the middle of the prairie makes this site interesting from a scientific perspective and will allow NEON to address questions related to how this ecosystem responds to changes in land management.” 

Pictured above: Jennifer Smith (right), field operations manager for NEON Domain 06, and Nicole Stanton, botanist for Domain 06, visit the NEON tower site at the KU Field Station just north of Lawrence.

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