NEON Alaska Comes On Line

Tower construction during spring 2015 at the NEON Healy site. The Healy site is the first NEON Alaska site that will come on-line. Photo: NEON Alaska The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a large-scale project funded by the National Science Foundation to document ecological changes across the U.S. over the next three decades. A data collection network with research sites across the country will, over time, shed light on the impacts of climate change, land use change, and invasive species. 

Alaska is one of the newest NEON regions. Alaska based teams of science technicians are busy working their way through the first field season and establishing study sites in tundra and taiga ecosystems across the state.

Katrine Gorham is the Field Operations Manager overseeing everything in Alaska. For over four years, until June 2014, Gorham was the Summit Station (Greenland) Project Manager for Polar Field Services. Although Polar Field Services does not provide logistical support services to NEON, we wanted to check in with Gorham to learn more about NEON and the exciting work underway in Alaska.

Katrine Gorham working at the NEON Alaska Healy site measuring study plots using survey equipment. Photo: NEON Alaska

Field Notes (FN): What is the National Ecological Observatory Network? Katrine Gorham (KG): Project NEON is a large-scale, 30-year ecology project. We monitor a number of different ecological parameters across 20 domains in the Unites States, including Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii. NEON defines domains as specific eco-climatic areas, two of which are in Alaska.

NEON has three main areas of study. We are looking at the impacts of (1) climate change, (2) land use change and (3) invasive species over that 30-year time frame. At the end of the project, the idea is to have this long-term, standardized ecological record.

FN: What do you have planned for this field season and where are your studies focused in Alaska?

KG: Alaska is one of the more recent domains to come on line, so we are up here establishing study sites at six different areas across the state. NEON Alaska is focused on two different regions—taiga and tundra. It’s actually really cool to see the distinction between the two. We have two sites in the tundra region—one at Barrow and one at Toolik Field Station. The tundra sites are both very representative of that ecosystem. You don’t see a lot of taller vegetation; it’s all very low and there is permafrost. Our taiga/boreal forest sites are very different. There are spruce forests; some sites have permafrost, while some do not. It’s a very different look and feel from what you see in the tundra area.

FN: What types of data are you collecting?

KG: It’s a pretty exciting time for NEON Alaska. This is our first field season. We are collecting a wide range of ecological measurements.  We are starting our first terrestrial work at our earliest site in Healy, Alaska [southwest of Fairbanks] where we are taking a range of different terrestrial measurements—things like small mammal samples, beetle and mosquito samples, and a number of different vegetation observations. We are deploying sensors to collect data at our first tower site, which is also in Healy. Our goal is to measure all of these different parameters in a very standardized way for a multi-decadal record. There’s also plenty of construction going on at some of the sites. Hopefully, in the next year to year and a half, we will have six fully functioning sites in Alaska.

FN: Alaska is home to unique ecosystems that face unique environmental challenges. How does that connect to the NEON mission?

KG: The key to having a big, 30-year data set like this is having data collected from lots of different locations in a very standardized way. Our sites in Alaska play a key role in that. These are the highest latitude sites in the U.S. Alaska is important to understanding what’s going on with our ecology long term and what the impacts of climate change, invasive species, and land use might be over the next several decades.

FN: You mentioned, NEON Alaska is just really coming on line this year. As the field operations manager, what’s been the most exciting aspect of being part of a brand new component of this project?

KG: One of the coolest things about the Alaska domain is the challenge of working in some really remote locations with unique logistical challenges. This is probably true for much of the scientific work done in Alaska.

What’s also fun is that we are a young team, in terms of having lots of people join in the last few months, and we continue to grow. Right now, we are a team of 10. Over the next year and a half we will grow substantially, bringing on both full-time and seasonal staff. Next summer I anticipate we’ll have a staff of 40-45 people. It’s all very exciting! Six months ago it was just a team of one—me! It’s been really fun to have the energy from a new team.

For more information on NEON Alaska, visit: --Alicia Clarke