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.
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.
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The Washington Redskins will retire their controversial name and logo, the National Football League (NFL) team announced Monday.
By Alyssa Murdoch, Chrystal Mantyka-Pringle and Sapna Sharma
Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
A Good News Story?<p>On the surface, the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13569" target="_blank">results from our study</a> appear to provide a "good news" story. Warming temperatures were linked to higher numbers of fish, more species overall and, therefore, potentially more fishing opportunities for northerners.</p><p>Initially, we were surprised to learn that warming was increasing the distribution of cold-adapted fish. We reasoned that modest amounts of warming could lead to benefits such as increased food and winter habitat availability without reaching stressful levels for many species.</p>
Photo of Arctic grayling (left) and Dolly Varden trout (right). Alyssa Murdoch / Lilian Tran / Nunavik Research Centre and Tracey Loewen / Fisheries and Oceans Canada<p>Yet, not all fish species fared equally well. Ecologically unique northern species — those that have evolved in colder, more nutrient-poor environments, such as Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout — were showing declines with warming.</p>
Fish Strandings and Buried Eggs<p>Recent news headlines run the gamut for Pacific salmon — from their increased escapades <a href="https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/more-pacific-salmon-showing-up-in-western-arctic-waters/" target="_blank">into the Arctic</a> to <a href="https://www.juneauempire.com/news/warm-waters-across-alaska-cause-salmon-die-offs/" target="_blank">massive pre-spawning die-offs</a> in central Alaska. Similarly, results from our study revealed different outcomes for fish depending on local climatic conditions, including Pacific salmon.</p><p>We found that warmer spring and fall temperatures may be helping juvenile salmon by providing a longer and more plentiful growing season, and by supporting early egg development in northern regions that were previously too cold for survival.</p><p>In contrast, salmon declined in regions that were experiencing wetter fall conditions, pointing to an increased risk of flooding and sedimentation that could bury or dislodge incubating eggs.</p>
Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
The Fate of Northern Fisheries<p>The promise of a warmer and more accessible Arctic has attracted mounting interest in new economic opportunities, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103637" target="_blank">including fisheries</a>. As warming rates at higher latitudes are already <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">two to three times global levels</a>, it seems probable that northern biodiversity will experience dramatic shifts in the coming decades.</p><p>Despite the many unknowns surrounding the future of Pacific salmon, many fisheries are currently <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/03632415.2017.1374251" target="_blank">thriving following warmer and more productive northern oceans</a>, and some <a href="https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic68876" target="_blank">Arctic Indigenous communities are developing new salmon fisheries</a>.</p><p>As warming continues, the commercial salmon fishing industry is poised to expand northwards, but its success will largely depend on extenuating factors such as <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060023067" target="_blank">changes to marine habitat and food sources</a> and <a href="https://www.yukon-news.com/news/promising-chinook-salmon-run-failed-to-materialize-in-the-yukon-river-panel-hears/" target="_blank">how many fish are caught during the freshwater stages of their journey</a>.</p><p>Even with the potential for increased northern biodiversity, it is important to recognize that some northern communities may be unable to adapt or may <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/searching-for-the-yukon-rivers-missing-chinook/" target="_blank">lose individual species that are associated with important cultural values</a>.</p>
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By Joni Sweet
If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, don't hit decline — it might be a contact tracer calling to let you know that someone you've been near has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Interviews With Contact Tracers<p>Contact tracing is a public health strategy that involves identifying everyone who may have been in contact with a person who has the coronavirus. Contact tracers collect information and provide guidance to help contain the transmission of disease.</p><p>It's been used during outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Ebola, measles, and now the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.</p><p>It starts when the local department of health gets a report of a confirmed case of the coronavirus in its community and gives that person a call. The contact tracer usually provides information on how to isolate and when to get treatment, then tries to figure out who else the person may have exposed.</p><p>"We ask who they've been in contact with in the 48 hours prior to symptom onset, or 2 days before the date of their positive test if they don't have symptoms," said <a href="https://case.edu/medicine/healthintegration/people/heidi-gullett" target="_blank">Dr. Heidi Gullett</a>, associate director of the Center for Community Health Integration at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and medical director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio.</p>
“You’ve Been Exposed”<p>After the case interview, contact tracers will get to work calling the folks who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the person who tested positive.</p><p>"We give them recommendations about quarantining or isolating, getting tested, and what to do if they become sick. If they're not already sick, we still want them to self-quarantine so that they don't spread the disease to anyone else if they were to become sick," said Labus.</p><p>Generally, the contact tracer won't ask for additional contacts unless they happen to call someone who is sick or has a confirmed case of the virus. They will help ensure the contact has the resources they need to isolate themselves, if necessary. The contact tracer may continue to stay in touch with that person over the next 14 days.</p><p>"We follow the percentage of people that were contacts, then converted into being actual cases of the virus. It's an important marker to help us understand what kind of transmission happens in our community and how to control the virus," said Gullett.</p>
Why You Should Participate (and What Happens If You Don’t)<p>A <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30457-6/fulltext" target="_blank">Lancet study</a> from June 16, which looked at data from more than 40,000 people, found that COVID-19 transmission could be reduced by 64 percent through isolating those who have the coronavirus, quarantining their household, and contacting the people they may have exposed.</p><p>The combination strategy was significantly more effective than mass random testing or just isolating the sick person and members of their household.</p><p>However, contact tracing is only as effective as people's willingness to participate, and a small number of people who've contracted the coronavirus or were potentially exposed are reluctant to talk.</p><p>"Contact tracers have all been hung up on, cussed at, yelled at," said Gullet.</p><p>The hesitation to talk to contact tracers often stems from concerns over privacy — a serious issue in healthcare.</p>
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