Quantcast
Science
Images created by NASA with satellite data helped the USDA analyze outbreak patterns for southern pine beetles in Alabama in spring 2016. NASA

Can Scientists Learn to Make Daily ‘Nature Forecasts’?

By Michael Dietze

Imagine that spring has finally arrived and you're planning your weekend. The weather forecast looks great. You could go to the beach—but what if it's closed because of an algal bloom? Maybe you could go for a hike—will the leaves be out yet? What might be in flower? Will the migratory birds be back? Oh, and you heard last year was bad for ticks—will this spring be better or worse?


We all take weather forecasts for granted, so why isn't there a "nature forecast" to answer these questions? Enter the new scientific field of ecological forecasting. Ecologists have long sought to understand the natural world, but only recently have they begun to think systematically about forecasting.

Much of the current research in ecological forecasting is focused on long-term projections. It considers questions that play out over decades to centuries, such as how species may shift their ranges in response to climate change, or whether forests will continue to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

However, in a new article that I co-authored with 18 other scientists from universities, private research institutes and the U.S. Geological Survey, we argue that focusing on near-term forecasts over spans of days, seasons and years will help us better understand, manage and conserve ecosystems. Developing this ability would be a win-win for both science and society.

A 'red tide' bloom of Karenia brevis, a toxic microorganism that can cause fish kills and poison humans who eat contaminated shellfish. Scientists use satellite imagery and water sampling to predict harmful algal blooms and other short-term ecological phenomena. Chase Fountain / Texas Parks & Wildlife

The Benefits of Forecasting

Beyond helping people plan their weekends, ecological forecasts will improve decision-making in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and other industries. They will help private landowners, local governments and state and federal agencies better manage and conserve our land, water and coastlines, for example by warning of events such as pest outbreaks and harmful algal blooms. They will improve public health through better forecasts of infectious disease outbreaks and better planning in anticipation of famine, wildfires and other natural disasters.

Ecological forecasts will also deepen our understanding of the world around us, and of how human activities are altering it. Forecasting formalizes the cycle between prediction and testing that is at the heart of the scientific method, and repeats it on a much quicker cycle. It can accelerate the pace of discovery in the environmental sciences at this critical time of rapid environmental change.

Weather forecast skill at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has improved continually and dramatically since the dawn of numerical weather prediction in the 1950s (100 = perfect score, 0 = random), due to more data, faster computers and better modeling tools.

New Tools and Technology

Big data is driving many of the advances in ecological forecasting. Today ecologists have orders of magnitude more data compared to just a decade ago, thanks to sustained public funding for basic science and environmental monitoring. This investment has given us better sensors, satellites and organizations such as the National Ecological Observatory Network, which collects high-quality data from 81 field sites across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. At the same time, cultural shifts across funding agencies, research networks and journals have made that data more open and available.

Digital technologies make it possible to access this information more quickly than in the past. Field notebooks have given way to tablets and cell networks that can stream new data into supercomputers in real time. Computing advances allow us to build better models and use more sophisticated statistical methods to produce forecasts.

Technical and Social Challenges

So far, though, ecological forecasting has not kept pace with advances in data and technology. In our article, we lay out a road map for accelerating the field by tackling the bottlenecks slowing us down.

Some of these bottlenecks are technical, such as better integrating the streams of data that are now available from many different sources, such as field studies, sensor networks and satellite observations.

Other challenges involve human choices. Ecologists need to spend more time engaged in two-way communication with stakeholders, rather than just pushing out the latest research to decision-makers. And we need better ways to transfer state-of-the-art research from universities to agencies and private industry.

Perhaps most limiting is that ecologists traditionally have not been taught forecasting concepts and methods. But as I have written, this situation is changing. There now are summer workshops and a growing number of university courses in ecological forecasting. Prediction is leading to new theories that aim to unify different parts of ecology.

Ecology's Choice

At the dawn of numerical weather prediction in the 1950s, scientists at the National Weather Service faced a choice. They could either wait to start forecasting until the underlying research, models and tools improved, or proceed immediately with making forecasts and learn by doing. They chose the second path. It proved harder than expected—but had they waited, they likely would have failed because they would have missed a critical window when experts and agencies were willing to make major investments in this effort.

Up to now, ecologists have generally adhered to the first, more conservative path. But in this time of rapid environmental change, the societal need and technological capacity for forecasting have never been greater. The forecasts won't always be right, especially as the field develops, but failure is part of learning. The time for ecologists to start forecasting is now.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Health
A family wears face masks as they walk through the smoke filled streets after the Thomas wildfire swept through Ventura, California on Dec. 6, 2017. MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

How to Protect Your Children From Wildfire Smoke

By Cecilia Sierra-Heredia

We're very careful about what our kids eat, but what about the air they breathe?

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Hero Images / Getty Images

Study: Children Have Better Nutrition When They Live Near Forests

Spending time in nature is known to boost mental and emotional health. Now, a new global study has found that children in 27 developing nations tend to have more diverse diets and better nutrition when they live near forests.

The paper, published Wednesday in Science Advances, provides evidence that forest conservation can be an important tool in promoting better nutrition in developing countries, rather than clear-cutting forests for more farmland.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Navy torpedo bomber spraying DDT just above the trees in Goldendale, WA in 1962. USDA Forest Service

Maternal DDT Exposure Linked to Increased Autism Risk

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry Thursday found that mothers exposed to the banned pesticide DDT were nearly one-third more likely to have children who developed autism, Environmental Health News reported.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
Significant cupping of leaves from dicamba drift on non-Xtend soybeans planted next to Xtend beans in research plots at the Ashland Bottoms farm near Manhattan, KS. Dallas Peterson, K-State Research and Extension / CC BY 2.0

Top Seed Companies Urge EPA to Limit Dicamba

Two of the nation's largest independent seed sellers, Beck's Hybrids and Stine Seed, are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to place limits on the spraying of the drift-prone pesticide dicamba, Reuters reported.

This could potentially hurt Monsanto, which along with DowDupont and BASF SE, makes dicamba formulations to use on Monsanto's Xtend seeds that are genetically engineered to resist applications of the weedkiller. Beck's Hybrids and Stine Seed, as well as other companies, sell those seeds.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Baby son in high chair feeding father. Getty Images

Baby Food Tests Find 68 Percent Contain 'Worrisome' Levels of Heavy Metals

Testing published by Consumer Reports (CR) Thursday found "concerning levels" of toxic metals in popular U.S. baby and toddler food.

The consumer advocacy group tested 50 nationally-distributed, packaged foods designed for toddlers and babies for mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke talks to journalists outside the White House West Wing before attending a Trump cabinet meeting on Aug. 16. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Zinke Announces Plan to Fight Wildfires With More Logging

The Trump administration announced a new plan Thursday to fight ongoing wildfires with more logging, and with no mention of additional funding or climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Wangan and Jagalingou cultural leader Adrian Burragubba visits Doongmabulla Springs in Australia. The Wangan and Jagalingou are fighting a proposed coal mine that would likely destroy the springs, which are sacred to the Indigenous Australian group. Wangan and Jagalingou

Indigenous Australians Take Fight Against Giant Coal Mine to the United Nations

By Noni Austin

For tens of thousands of years, the Wangan and Jagalingou people have lived in the flat arid lands of central Queensland, Australia. But now they are fighting for their very existence. Earlier this month, they took their fight to the United Nations after years of Australia's failure to protect their fundamental human rights.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Jones Gap State Park in Greenville County, South Carolina. Jason A G / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Victory for Clean Water: Court Reinstates Obama WOTUS Rule for 26 States

A federal judge invalidated the Trump administration's suspension of the Clean Water Rule, effectively reinstating the Obama-era regulation in 26 states.

The 2015 rule, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) defines which waters can be protected from pollution and destruction under the Clean Water Act. It protects large water bodies such as lakes and rivers, as well as small streams and wetlands.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!