DOE, ORNL officially join NSF on massive ecological study

June 22, 2010

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 22, 2010 -- With the signing of a memorandum of agreement, the Oak Ridge Reservation officially becomes one of 20 planned core ecological observatory sites that will provide valuable information to help scientists better understand how the ecosystem breathes.

The agreement between the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation sets into motion the Walker Branch Watershed portion of the $434 million project known as the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON. DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory will provide guidance on locating towers and associated instrumentation and the location of sampling plots. The Oak Ridge Reservation, which consists of 20,000 acres, is the only DOE NEON site.

"The Oak Ridge Reservation is a giant outdoor scientific laboratory," the agreement states. "It contains large blocks of forest and diverse vegetation communities that offer unparalleled resources for ecosystem-level and large-scale research.

"Major national and international collaborative research initiatives use it to address issues such as biodiversity, sustainable development, global climate change, innovative power conductors, solar radiation monitoring, ecological recovery, and monitoring and remediation."

Pat Mulholland, a senior scientist in ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division, noted the significance of the inclusion of the Oak Ridge Reservation in this project.

"Being selected as a core site to represent the Southern Appalachians and Cumberland Plateau domain is a reflection of the unique environmental and infrastructure qualities and the long history of excellent research conducted at Walker Branch Watershed," Mulholland said. Walker Branch comprises a 240-acre forest drained by two headwater streams within the Oak Ridge Reservation.

As part of the 30-plus-year effort, each NEON core site will be equipped with instruments to collect biological, biophysical, biogeochemical and land use and land management data. Fixed towers will support an array of sensors that will transmit data across the network, making NEON a true national network rather than merely a collection of regional observatories.

According to the agreement, three locations in Walker Branch Watershed will be instrumented with the Fundamental Instrument Unit sensor package deployed on or near 40-meter towers similar to the existing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tower in Walker Branch.

Researchers are looking forward to the new views of ecology that will be created by continental-scale NEON data. Just as meteorologists today can predict the path of a tornado or hurricane, ecologists using NEON data in the future may be able to more accurately forecast biological phenomena such as changes in forest productivity and chemical cycles in response to climate change -- or the emergence of an invasive species.

"Being part of the NEON network will attract leading national and international ecologists to Oak Ridge to conduct research," Mulholland said. "NEON infrastructure will also provide unique educational and research opportunities for students at all levels through Web site access to NEON results and on-site studies."

Construction at the Oak Ridge site is tentatively scheduled to begin late next year.
-end-
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE's Office of Science. More information about Walker Branch Watershed can be found at http://walkerbranch.ornl.gov. For NEON news, visit http://wwwneoninc.org.

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DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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