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In It for the Long Haul

November 18, 2015

With the oldest of our stations having been installed in 2012, the iRON is a relatively young network. Our vision, though, is to collect data not just for a few years, but for decades and generations to come. While this vision is perhaps ambitious, it draws upon the inspiration and experience provided by examples of successful long term monitoring efforts.

Perhaps one of the most famous legacies of long term monitoring is that of Charles David Keeling, whose perseverance in recording and maintaining careful records of Carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa, Hawaii played a critical role in identifying human influence on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the climate.

At a network wide scale, the largest, longest-lived monitoring effort in the US is the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER). LTER began in 1980 with funding from the National Science Foundation, but some of its individual sites have been established far longer. Harvard Forest, for example has been collecting data since 1907 as a research and education location. LTER currently has 26 official research sites. They are located across the U.S., with a few special sites present in the Caribbean and Antarctica. This broad reach allows for sharing and coordination across a diversity of ecosystem types from the arctic tundra to coral reefs and from prairies to tundra.

These diverse stations are unified by three key characteristics: research must occur within areas that have been specifically identified as representative ecosystem types, it must focus on phenomena that occur on long time scales, and it must have cross-site applications. Collecting consistent data over extended durations of time is critical to understanding the natural world because ecosystem processes occur on different temporal scales. Some insects may live as adults for only a few days before mating and dying and be influenced by habitat conditions over a very short period of time. Forests, by contrast, are characterized by species that may live hundreds of years and cycles of disturbance and regeneration that take even longer to fully manifest their impacts. Long term research networks, therefore, are crucial to identifying trends that occur on scales that may be longer than a typical researchers' career or that may have repercussions within our lifetimes.

At Niwot Ridge LTER in Colorado, for example, the data collected are being applied to furthering understanding in a variety of fields that directly impacts people's daily lives, such as: water dynamics or identifying warning signs of harmful levels of air pollution.

Because ecological monitoring reveals trends over time, it can sometimes be challenging at the outset to estimate in exactly what ways the data will be most valuable. As we establish our own, local monitoring network in the iRON, we will consider local interests and information needs, as well as build upon research from other areas to identify potentially valuable areas of investigation. The iRON may be in its early days still, but every monitoring network has to start sometime, and with the context of a rapidly changing climate as a background, starting now offers an abundant opportunity to start understanding what those changes mean for our own valley.