June 1, 2009

Online Database Will Monitor Life On Earth

Scientists are compiling an Internet-based observatory of life on Earth as a guide to everything from the impact of climate change on wildlife to pests that can damage crops, Reuters reported.

James Edwards, head of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said the 10-year project hopes to have millions of people providing data in the long term.

With the help of scientific organizations around the world, the project will link up thousands of computer databases of animals and plants into a one-stop "virtual observatory".

Those involved with the project have likened it to similar global systems for monitoring the weather or earthquakes.

Observations on the Internet, ranging from sightings of rare birds in Canada to the dates on which flowers bloom in spring in Australia, are just a few of the things users around the world log on their own Web sites. Once becoming fully operational, the new system would link up the disparate sites.

A conference organized by the EOL will bring together some 400 biology and technology experts from 50 countries to discuss plans for the system.

The EOL is separately trying to describe the world's species online.

Norman MacLeod, keeper of paleontology at the Natural History Museum in London, said it would be a free system that everyone can access and contribute to.

A biodiversity overview could have big economic benefits, according to Edwards.

For instance, an unusual insect found in a garden might be an insect pest brought unwittingly in a grain shipment that could disrupt local agriculture.

Edwards said understanding any shifts in the ranges of malaria-carrying mosquitoes linked to global warming would be among just a few of the potential health benefits.

An official statement regarding the observatory said that within 10 years, scientists say they could have an efficient and effective way of tracking changes over time in the range and abundance of plants and animals as worldwide temperature and precipitation patterns shift.

Furthermore, plane accidents might be averted by studying DNA genetic samples of birds sucked into jet engines and the timing, altitude and routes of bird migrations.

Other benefits of the observatory include developing a benchmark for monitoring the rate of extinctions and helping people in their everyday lives "“ for instance, anyone planning to visit a local forest could study trees, flowers, animals or insects that might be observed during their visit.


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