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Forecasting nature just as we forecast the weather?

Just like the weather forecasts we all take for granted, can we create a reliable a ‘nature forecast’ to help us better understand, manage and conserve ecosystems? Get ready for ecological forecasting! The shift from conception to actively building collaborations that span international boundaries, ecological scale and observation systems has begun. Read on to hear how the world’s environmental observatories are integrating for ecological forecasting.
The new scientific field of ecological forecasting predicts how ecosystems, like the Southwest Australia Ecoregion famous for its wildflowers (above) will change in the future in response to environmental factors such as climate change (image courtesy of Suzanne Long) 

What’s the first thing you do when planning a weekend away? Chances are it’s to check the weather forecast. So, the weather’s good, but will the wildflowers that you’re keen to see be in bloom? Will you catch a glimpse of the whales migrating down the east coast? What will the water quality be like at your favourite beach or lake? And, will the mozzies at that campground you like be bad again this year?

“We all take weather forecasts for granted, so why isn’t there a ‘nature forecast’ to answer these questions,” ponders Michael Dietze of Boston University in his latest piece in The Conversation.

“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.”

There are obviously enormous opportunities in providing real-time information about our natural world, and TERN is committed to doing so, but if we are to really succeed in making a difference, ecosystem science must become more reliably predictive—a point reinforced in the 2016 Australian Research Infrastructure Roadmap, with the potential development of a National Environmental Prediction System.

“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, Michael and many of his fellow scientists argue that developing better near-term forecasts over spans of days, seasons and years will help us better understand, manage and conserve ecosystems.

“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, wildfire 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 formalises 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.”

“Developing our predictive ability would be a win-win for both science and society”.

Using the data collected by TERN's nation-wide ecosystem observatory, scientists and managers can compare the health of Australian ecosystems over time (image courtesy Cacelia Ewenz)


Integrating the world’s environmental observatories for “nature forecasting”

The shift from conception to actively building collaborations that span international boundaries, ecological scale and observation systems has begun.

Building on previous TERN-led events aimed at creating a global ecosystem observatory, Michael and the National Science Foundation (NSF) organised a workshop in Arizona during February 2018 on ‘Ecological Knowledge and Predictions: integrating across networks and national observatories’.

TERN attended alongside other continental or country scale observatories including SAEON (South Africa), MexLTER/ILTER (Mexico) and NEON (USA). There were also representatives from a range of specialist ecological networks from Canada, Mexico, and the US and researchers from site-specific long-term research (LTER) plots and Critical Zone Observatories (CZO).

The workshop engaged in a forward-looking and science-focused discussion about how networks and observatories can accelerate ecological knowledge-generation and predictive capacity.

TERN’s Director Dr Beryl Morris attended the workshop and says that “Preparing for predictive capacity presents many new ways of doing science in ecology, not just using remote sensing, sensors, monitoring networks, and long-term research in providing real-time information about our natural world, but also through ecological big data.

“The latter requires closer connection between models and data as the world moves beyond traditional modelling and into ecological forecasting. Forecasting a real place and time is a much more data-intensive process than theoretical modelling, and it draws heavily upon skills from statistics and informatics.

“At the same time, it relies on sophisticated modelling, including the deployment of ensembles of models, more than is often employed for pure data analysis.”

In the final part of the workshop, attendees focused on capacity building, agreeing that we need our institutions to introduce new initiatives in how we approach training, education, tool development, cyberinfrastructure and engagement to accelerate scientific progress in, and societal relevance of, global ecology.

“In this time of rapid environmental change, the societal need and technological capacity for forecasting have never been greater,” comments Michael.

“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.”

  • Michael Dietze’s Conversation article titled ‘Can scientists learn to make ‘nature forecasts’ just as we forecast the weather?’ can be read in full here.
  • More information on the NSF ‘Ecological Knowledge and Predictions workshop’ can be found here






Published in TERN newsletter March 2018

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