After five years of construction, a 26-foot tower in Mandan is collecting data on temperature, precipitation and chemicals in the air, water, plants and soil that could aid research on problems such as climate change and the spread of disease.

After five years of construction, a 26-foot tower in Mandan is collecting data on temperature, precipitation and chemicals in the air, water, plants and soil that could aid research on problems such as climate change and the spread of disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory is one of 60 host sites for National Ecological Observatory Network's data-gathering project.

"No other project has taken on something with this kind of scale both in size and length," said Andrea Anteau, NEON field operations manager for North Dakota when the tower was being constructed.

The tower has been gathering data for three to four months and scientists started field observations of plants and insects last growing season. In total, the project will gather 578 data points over the next 30 years. The raw data will be public, allowing professional and amateur scientists to access it.

The Mandan site is one of three NEON sites in North Dakota, along with two sites near Woodworth. The towers are outfitted with sensors that measure everything from temperature and wind speed to the amount of carbon dioxide being taken in by plants and how that is helping the plants' root systems grow.

In conjunction with the tower, six full-time and 21 temporary summer field scientists have been setting mosquito and beetle traps and dragging cloth to pick up ticks as samples to be sent to independent labs for disease testing.

Some of the data is not yet available but, over the next three to six months, everything will be added to the online NEON data portal, neonscience.org.

The portal also offers explainers on how to interpret and analyze the data, though it does not do any analysis. Anteau said this is in an effort to offer impartial, primary source information.

"It's a matter of creating information without a conflict of interest," she told The Bismarck Tribune .

Former NEON communications manager Jennifer Walton, when the tower was being constructed, said the long-term nature of the project and the concept of gathering the same information at every site the same way is part of what makes NEON unique. She said other long-term ecological research plans have not allowed for comparison. The NEON method will allow one issue to be linked to another on a national scale.

Typically, scientific studies are only done on a five-year timeframe, which means it may only include data from a dry season or a wet season and trends found may be attributed to a particular cycle. After NEON has built up its database, scientists using it will be able to look beyond those seasonal effects to the bigger picture.

"That data becomes much more valuable as time goes on," Anteau said.

Despite only having a few months of data, Anteau said she has had several universities, in North Dakota and outside the state, reach out to her as they start using NEON data for projects.

For example, Anteau said NEON does not collect information on the amphibian community, but researchers that do study them may be using NEON data such as rainfall alongside their own data gathering to explain what they're seeing within their research topic. Because NEON is already gathering this data, it is one less thing those researchers will have to gather for themselves, according to Anteau.

Construction costs for the project were about $434 million, coming from the National Science Foundation, which funds major research projects with high start-up costs. Each tower site is estimated to cost $1 million.