NEON Spotlight: The Best of 2020

As the end of 2020 approaches, we at Battelle want to highlight the tremendous work delivered by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) this year, a program we have had the privilege of operating since 2016. NEON’s 2020 contributions demonstrate the significant impact this data has on ecological science. Bringing together scientists from agencies and universities across the nation, this year NEON has facilitated ecological breakthroughs across disciplines and at unprecedented scales. We are looking forward to further collaborating with additional researchers and institutions to push forward ecological discovery.

The goal of the NEON program is to provide high-quality, consistently generated, standardized data—free and available to all users—that will enable scientists, researchers, and students to address critical questions and understand changes in ecosystems over time. The program’s comprehensive data, spatial extent, and remote sensing technology enables the user community to tackle new questions on an unmatched scale.

Here are 10 of the most exciting news items from the NEON program in the past year: 

NEON Welcomes New Director
Paula Mabee began her role as Chief Scientist and Observatory Director of NEON. Mabee is an Emeritus Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of South Dakota. From 2015 to 2017 she served as Division Director for the Division of Environmental Biology in the Directorate of Biological Sciences with the National Science Foundation. Author of over 60 research publications and AAAS Fellow, Mabee is an outstanding leader in the field of biology, and NEON is honored to have her at the helm of the program.

This was originally published in the February 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NEON Data Informs Tree Crown Detection Models
Using NEON data, a team of scientists from the University of Florida extended a new deep learning approach to determine whether information from one forest can be used for tree detection in other forests. Published in Ecological Informatics, research by Ben G. Weinstein, Sergio Marconi, Stephanie A. Bohlman, Alina Zare, and Ethan P. White found that this deep learning approach works well for overstory tree detection, with the best performance in open oak woodlands. 

This was originally published in the March 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NEON Data Informs Better Gene Sequencing
Identifying microorganisms and defining their function within communities has historically been a challenging process due to a lack of centralized data. However, the NEON program affords researchers the ability to investigate ecological questions on a regional and continental scale and provides high-quality, integrated, and standardized data from field sites across the United States. Using NEON data, Rita R. Colwell, Anwar Huq, and Kyle D. Brumfield from the University of Maryland; James L. Olds from George Mason University; and Menu B. Leddy from Essential Environmental and Engineering Systems were able to validate whole genome shotgun sequencing (WGS) as a more accurate way of identifying microorganisms and putative functional genes.

This was originally published in the April 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

Old-Growth Trees Are Crucial to Storing Carbon
On a NEON site in the historic Wind River Experimental Forest, Matt Schroeder, NEON's assistant director of field science, aided in the discovery of how old trees, by virtue of their age and size, can hold far more carbon than any current technology capable of pulling carbon from the air, making them crucial assets for carbon storage. 

This was originally published in the May 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

Pandemic Reveals Necessity of NEON Data Collection
Due to COVID-19 disrupting on-the-ground scientific research, NEON’s scientific director, Paula Mabee, discussed the importance of ongoing data collection programs such as NEON’s North American ecosystem monitoring.

This was originally published in the June 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NASA Program Targets Biodiversity
NASA, in partnership with the USA National Phenology Network and the Phenocam Network, has leveraged NEON data in two of its biodiversity projects to track how climate change and other factors will impact wildlife communities and phenology, with hopes to share the most innovative biodiversity data with the global scientific community.

This was originally published in the July 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NEON Datasets Contribute to Revealing Seasonal Changes
At the virtual 2020 ESA Meeting, researchers explained how NEON data is contributing to the revolution in open phenological data. The development and implementation of new data integration methods across scales and platforms, and the capability to analyze large datasets, have allowed researchers to study shifts in phenology in response to changing climate without previous data constraints. These innovative methods will give scientists the resources to address both local- and large-scale questions and lay the foundation for the future of phenological research.

This was originally published in the September 2020 edition of NEON Spotlight.

NEON Program Capable of Sharing Nature’s Stories
A recent profile by Digital Trends shared the history of NEON and how the program will redefine ecological research and discovery for decades to come. The piece discussed how the widespread observation network enables researchers to collect spatially integrated data from dozens of sites over time, furthering our understanding of how ecosystems operate as a complex system. 

This was originally published in the October 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NEON Scientists Find Humans Cause Most Threatening Wildfires
NEON data scientist Nathan Mietkiewicz, and Jennifer Balch, Director of University of Colorado’s Earth Lab, published research showing that 97% of wildfires that threaten homes in the U.S. are started by humans. Development in wildland-urban areas increased 145% between 1990 and 2015, and the impact of climate change is also exacerbating the issue. But the fact that humans cause most wildfires that threaten homes also means it is possible to prevent many wildfires from occurring.

This was originally published in the November 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

NASA Using NEON Data to Study Trees’ Impact on Sensor Measurements
NASA announced it will fund a three-year collaborative project to investigate how the chemical properties of leaves and tree canopy structures affect remote sensing observations using NEON data. The research, backed by NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science program, will be led by scientists from Battelle, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the University of New Hampshire.

This was originally published in the December 2020 edition of the NEON Spotlight.

December 16, 2020
Battelle Insider
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