Benefits of ‘soft’ research infrastructure for Australia’s ecosystem scientists

Efficient processing and management of the very large and complex datasets generated by ecosystem monitoring programs can be a real headache, especially for individual scientists or small research groups with limited resources. In addition to the obvious benefits access to TERN’s ‘hard’ infrastructure can now deliver, it’s becoming clear that there are also ‘soft’ infrastructure benefits accruing for Australia’s ecosystem science community, related to the associated establishment of ecosystem science data standards and methodologies in a diverse range of fields.

TERN’s OzFlux facility is a good example of this. OzFlux’s network of towers around Australia continuously measures the exchanges (flux) of carbon dioxide, water vapour and energy between the terrestrial ecosystem and atmosphere. OzFlux data are being used to improve understanding of the response of carbon and water cycles in Australian ecosystems to climate variability, disturbance, land management and future changes in precipitation, temperature and CO2 levels. OzFlux data are also being used to test and improve CABLE, the land-surface model in ACCESS being developed jointly by CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Australian universities. However, the task of managing the sheer volume of data being generated in near-real-time by the ‘hard’ infrastructure would be overwhelming without the associated ‘soft’ infrastructure – data-handling standards, resources and procedures – that has also been developed and shared by the facility.

A number of non-TERN-funded attendees at  OzFlux’s data processing workshop in Sydney this month were keen to highlight just how critical this access to efficient, standardised ways of processing huge quantities of flux tower data is for the success of their projects. Ivan Schroder is working on a joint Geoscience Australia/CSIRO project  that has established a flux tower on cropping and grazing lands approximately 100 km south-east of Emerald, in central Queensland. ‘We were set up as part of the baseline monitoring for a carbon storage project,’ he explained, ‘and even though we’re not technically a TERN or OzFlux facility, access to the knowledge and expertise provided through the network has been vital for getting us off the ground.’

Geoffrey Carlin, a research scientist at CSIRO Land & Water in Brisbane, is involved in an innovative project that’s attempting to estimate primary production in seagrass beds by measuring oxygen fluxes in situ, underwater in southeast Queensland. ‘Capital expenditure funding from CSIRO has enabled us to purchase the resources for this project, and we’re putting the bulk of them into building and trialing the novel equipment needed to make the field measurements to the required accuracy,’ he said. ‘What makes the project viable from our viewpoint is that we don’t have to spend time re-inventing the wheel in terms of data processing and interpretation  we’re able to take advantage of the standard procedures and open-access software that OzFlux has generated for dealing with these kinds of datasets.’

There’s increasing recognition that the many kinds of research infrastructure being delivered through TERN – both hard and soft – are enabling Australia’s ecosystem scientists to work more efficiently, effectively and collaboratively.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter June 2012

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