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Published: Jun 1, 2009
Public Asked To Help Monitor Life On Earth
by Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

Scientists asked people around the world on Monday to help compile 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.

"I would hope that ... we might even have millions of people providing data" in the long term, James Edwards, head of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, told Reuters of the 10-year project.

He said scientific organizations were already working to link up thousands of computer databases of animals and plants into a one-stop "virtual observatory" that could be similar to global systems for monitoring the weather or earthquakes.

People in many countries already log observations on the Internet, ranging from sightings of rare birds in Canada to the dates on which flowers bloom in spring in Australia. The new system, when up and running, would link up the disparate sites.

About 400 biology and technology experts from 50 countries will meet in London from June 1-3 at an "e-Biosphere" conference organized by the EOL to discuss the plans. The EOL is separately trying to describe the world's species online.

"This would be a free system that everyone can access and contribute to," said Norman MacLeod, keeper of paleontology at the Natural History Museum in London which is hosting the talks.

Edwards said a biodiversity overview could have big economic benefits, 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.

Among health benefits could be understanding any shifts in the ranges of malaria-carrying mosquitoes linked to global warming, Edwards said.

"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," a statement said.

And 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.

The observatory could give a benchmark for monitoring the rate of extinctions, for instance, to threats led by loss of habitats to farms, cities and roads.

It could also help people in their everyday lives -- anyone planning to visit a local forest could study trees, flowers, animals or insects that might be seen on a hike.

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