On Dogs, Fleas, and Continental Scale

August 24, 2011

By Jeff Taylor

It’s been about 3 months since I started working in the Fundamental Instrument Group at NEON and it’s been a mix of exciting new science, hard work, and lots of new friends. I’ve worked at a several other research institutes and universities but they really can’t compare with the level of vibrant energy that NEON has. The traditional model of having many senior, highly distinguished scientists and a few young staff scientists is defied at NEON. Here, the science cadré consists of young talent from all over the world mentored by some select senior leaders. Perhaps it’s the feeling of being part of a new start-up institute or maybe it’s the mood generated by having so many diverse scientists collaborating, with backgrounds that range from entomology to astronomy? No matter what the source of NEON’s energetic environment, I count myself lucky to be a part of it! When I originally heard that NEON was going to be the world’s first continental-scale observatory, I was a bit confused. I had spent years working at observatories that were part of international networks dedicated to monitoring climate change, and they all worked at only local scales. How could one observatory monitor an entire continent?

Although NEON has many different observation sites spread across the US, they are connected by so many additional aircraft and supporting satellite observations that they do, indeed, represent climate science over the entire continent. Fine observations of minute quantities are continuously recorded at the sites, and when we combine these with coarser measurements from aircraft, we can create a picture of how everything comes together across the entire country. The idea of “scaling up” is like thinking of the way humans can have dogs as pets, and dogs can have fleas, and fleas can carry bacteria – by harmonizing all of this information, we gain an understanding that is much more powerful than just studying one part of this community. In effect, the whole is indeed much greater than the sum of its parts.

When I found out about NEON, I recalled all of the difficult discussions from my previous projects that I regularly had with members of other observatories. I spent countless hours trying to encourage other observatories to embrace the same observation strategy or the same data analysis techniques or even the same data archival format. NEON’s unique ability to define all of these approaches across the entire observatory network before it becomes operative will address these challenges before they even start. It is these protocol definitions on which I’ve spent most of my time thus far in the Fundamental Instrument Unit. Our team will be responsible for making atmospheric and soil observations at all 60 terrestrial sites across the United States. We will observe key local factors that strongly influence climate change including temperature, precipitation, chemical pollutants, humidity, wind, radiation, and greenhouse gases. In total, over 14,000 different sensors will make 95 different measurements producing over 45 terabytes of raw data per year – that’s more than the first 20 years’ worth of observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope. Because there is so much data, we’ll have to develop innovative and efficient ways to ensure that only the highest quality standards are maintained. While this sort of planning and design may not sound like the most exciting task for a scientist, my previous work with observatories has helped me appreciate just how important it is.  

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