Four universities in two EPSCoR states, Kansas and Oklahoma, are collaborating to create a cyberCommons, a powerful, integrated cyber environment for knowledge discovery and education across complex environmental phenomena. Specifically, the cyberCommons will integrate two frameworks— the science framework of data, models, analytics and narratives, and the cyberinfrastructure framework of hardware, software, collaboration environment and integration environment. Weaving these frameworks harnesses the enormous revolution in CI technologies for ecological forecasting across the Central Plains. In so doing, the cyberCommons will make complex, cross-domain research on ecological systems collaborative for investigators, tractable for science, and beneficial for society.

Understanding ecological systems and forecasting their responses to global change is one of the grand challenges of the 21st century, as established by the National Research Council (NRC) and numerous other national and international bodies. Addressing this challenge is critical for grasslands, an ecosystem that is fundamental to the life and economy of the Central Plains, and provides vital goods and services to human societies worldwide—supplying clean water, recycling essential nutrients, sustaining biodiversity, and buffering against invasive species and emerging diseases.

The Central Plains grasslands are second only to the Arctic tundra in sequestering carbon below ground. At the same time, the impact of human activities, particularly food crop production, on Central Plains grasslands has altered land-use, land-cover and ecosystem structure and function on an unprecedented scale. This impact is being exacerbated by the demand for biofuels. Equally severe have been the consequences for biodiversity, a critical component of ecosystem function—species extinctions and extirpations, expansion of invasive species, and the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases. Two scientific questions underlie the understanding and forecasting of ecological systems in the Central Plains. Without a unifying and fertile CI environment, their complexity will continue to elude comprehensive exploration and knowledge discovery.