Like a plant after rain, TERN–NEON partnership blossoms

Global problems need global solutions, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, recently articulated when he said in a public bulletin that ‘no one nation has the people or resources to do on its own all that needs to be done’.

TERN has always recognised that when we tackle complex issues such as climate change or biodiversity loss we need an international approach if we are to truly make a difference.

The scale of the challenges we face is so large that it is vital that scientists around the world learn from each other’s successes and failures. As TERN matures, we are striving to ensure that what we discover helps to answer these big questions, not just for Australia, but for the worldwide community.

TERN and the USA’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) have recognised that we have many things in common, and that sharing people, knowledge and infrastructure will bring mutual benefits. To achieve this, we signed a memorandum of understanding at the TERN symposium in Canberra in February. It highlights six areas where the two programs can work together: high-level science questions or criteria; in-situ measurements and sampling protocols; data products; informatics; science and education; and project management.

Some TERN facilities, such as the Australian Supersite Network (ASN), were already working with NEON before the MOU was signed.

ASN Coordinator Dr Mirko Karan said: ‘We’ve been engaging with NEON since August 2012 and the relationship is really paying off now.’

In late 2012 the ASN and representatives of NEON began to review vegetation and soil monitoring protocols, and early this year, NEON people took part in the annual ASN meeting to advance shared learning and look for synergies.

Since then, Mirko, along with TERN Associate Science Director Professor Stuart Phinn, and the TERN network leader at ASN, Associate Professor Mike Liddell, delivered an invited presentation at the NEON session of the 2013 meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Titled ‘Plugging into NEON: a foundation for ecological research at the continental scale and beyond’, it described the relationship the two networks are developing, and why they’re pursuing it.

This month, OzFlux joined discussions with NEON and the ASN about flux tower infrastructure, data quality control and assurance methods.

‘We all agreed that there were many areas for partnership to be explored, and that further meetings are essential,’ Mirko says.

Collaborations between these groups will continue, and it is envisaged that more shared outcomes and, potentially, global information streams will come of them.

Harnessing the complexity of ecosystem data is a challenge for NEON and TERN. The release of the TERN Eco-informatics portal ÆKOS and the new NEON data portal have helped bring the two groups together.

Eco-informatics Director Mr Craig Walker said both networks wanted to build on their individual knowledge about designing complex systems.

‘Working together will allow us to discover and demonstrate the full richness of ecosystem data. The current ÆKOS system can deliver a service of value to NEON, and others, in a globally unique way,’ Craig says.

Unlike ÆKOS, the NEON portal does not tackle plot-based information, and it is envisioned that the latter will be able to take advantage of the knowledge the Eco-informatics team has acquired over many years of development. Design efficiencies will come through an open global dialogue and will help support worldwide research, Craig says. The technical sharing of software engineering, for example ontologies and semantics, will advance ecosystem informatics.

The Associate Director of TERN’s e-MAST facility, Dr Brad Evans, also stresses the importance of global knowledge.

‘The optimisation of these networks benefits global modelling, which is currently continent-centric,’ he says.

Joint projects will help people in both networks to assess which models are most useful, to create global standards, and to identify the ideal sampling strategies for creating these systems.

‘This collaboration provides the data-assimilation community with access to a robustly evaluated system capable of ingesting e-MAST, AusCover, OzFlux and ground-based observations,’ Brad says.

Assimilating machine generated data into useable products for scientists is not a trivial task and is very computationally expensive. The e-MAST–NEON data combination, coupled with Australia’s National Computational Infrastructure provide data assimilation with both continental and global benefits.

AusCover has also begun to collaborate with NEON. Facility director Dr Alex Held said that in June two AusCover staff joined investigators in California to explore airborne data-collection techniques. In addition early exchanges involved a comparison of data processing protocols.

‘We collect large volumes of complex data, and we need to explore ways to make that data into a useable product for researchers,’ Alex says.

Ongoing collaboration between NEON and AusCover is a key step to realising this idea, and they are exploring more staff and instrument exchanges between the United States of America and Australia.

As Stuart Phinn said, with the relationship developing in so many areas at once, it seemed fitting that the two networks established a joint session at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting, to be held in December. 

‘This meeting is one of the largest annual scientific conferences in the world, and it is also one of the most effectively organised, engaging and rewarding conferences,’ Stuart says.

‘The joint session, ‘Scaling ecosystem observations through space and time’, is a key topic for both groups – linking field observations to airborne or satellite image data or other spatial data, to derive output maps or time series maps of specific ecological and biophysical variables.’

Stuart said that more than 27 abstracts were submitted for the session, some from outside the USA and Australia, highlighting the global nature of the issue.

Other collaborations with TERN and NEON are just starting to develop. Given NEON’s global leadership in this field, links into its program will allow TERN to also explore partnerships with other countries that are tackling ecosystem-level issues. TERN’s infrastructure also has much to offer other nations and it is a wonderful outcome for the program when we see our science contributing to global work. As David Schimel, the former head of NEON, said about TERN: ‘The rest of the world is watching and hoping to learn.’

Published in TERN e-Newsletter August 2013

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