Big Island Recruited for Long-term Climate Change Research

The National Ecological Observatory Network establishes a survey site on the Big Island of Hawai’i to conduct climate change research.

The Big Island Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve will soon be home to one of many National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) climate change research sites. NEON is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and is operated by Battelle, a non-profit science and technology company in Ohio.

The NEON has identified 20 ecological domains spanning the continental U.S., each with their own unique climate, species, and habitat. Within each ecological domain, excluding the Pacific Tropical domain, lies identified aquatic biomes that will be monitored as well. The data collected at each site will be standardized so that it can be compared to the data from other ecological sites. Field-sampling methods are centered around surveying the air, water, soil, and species of each domain.


20 Ecological domains and field site locations. Credit: NEON Field Sites

Methods for Data Collection:

  1. Airborne Observation Platform (AOP): Remote sensors on airplanes annually produce a comprehensive map of the site, involving vegetation density, species composition, chemical index (Nitrogen omitted from the canopy) and topography.
  2. Flux Tower: Sensors placed along the site tower constantly assess atmospheric conditions, including carbon dioxide, water vapor, or isotope composition, as well pressure, temperature and precipitation. (Note: a Double Fence Inter-comparison Reference (DFIR) located near the tower is used for a more accurate precipitation survey).
  3. Soil Composition Analysis: Installed sensors near the tower collect information constantly, and soil core samples are obtained every five years. Soil sampling assesses moisture, carbon dioxide concentration, temperature, root biomass, texture, pH, nutrient composition, and microbial biomass.
  4. Terrestrial Organism Sampling: Involves many observational methods for assessing plant, animal, pathogen and microbial density, diversity, and composition.

All climate change research data collected at the domain sites is uploaded, cataloged and accessible online.


A representation of the data collection equipment a typical NEON site would contain. Credit: Neon Education

The Hawai’i field site is the assigned “Pacific Tropical” domain, and the facilities include a research tower, soil plots, a precipitation gauge, and a tool shed. Set to be effective in 2018, Hawai’i will be the last site put in operation.

Each site will be collecting data for the next 30 years, contributing to assessments of long-term ecological changes. A long-term experiment such as this is important for effective climate change research, since climate is defined as the persistent weather conditions over a long period of time.

NEON’s site surveys are utilizing diverse methodology to obtain a comprehensive evaluation of the different ecological domains. This in-depth, strategic study will be integral in assessing the effects of climate change in different global biomes, and hopefully produce insight so we can more readily prepare for the future.

Featured photo: Pe’e Pe’e Falls. Credit: Lee Harkness
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

About Dylan Meek

Dylan Meek is an undergraduate student at UCSC pursuing a major in marine biology. During her time as a student, she has become interested in conservation, and hopes to pursue a career in wildlife conservation. She has been enamored with nature her whole life, and enjoys spending her free time outdoors or in the ocean.

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