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Remote-Sensing Satellites, Computer Models Linked to Biological World

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Forecasts Show How Changing Environment Might Affect Life

Washington - Scientists are combining climate-related data sets, data from Earth-observing satellites and mathematical models of organism behavior to forecast the effects of environmental change on ecosystems, much like how meteorologists forecast weather and climate.

Ecological forecasts - critical new tools in development for resource managers on a planet whose climate is warming - predict the effects of biological, chemical and physical changes in the environment on ecosystems that support the existence of life on Earth.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between organisms and their environments. As a practice, ecological forecasting has been around since the first farmer stood in a field, squinted up at the sky and estimated the effects of a shortened rainy season on his fig trees. Today, the emerging ecological forecasting discipline is a data-driven scientific synthesis of physics, geology, chemistry, biology and psychology.

NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley is working to make ecological forecasting tools more widely available through its Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System (TOPS).

TOPS is a data and modeling software system that integrates data from satellite, aircraft and ground sensors with weather, climate and application models to produce "nowcasts" - short-term (zero- to three-hour) forecasts - and forecasts of ecological conditions.

"Weather forecasting made dramatic gains in the 1960s and 1970s, climate forecasting - climate is averaged or long-term weather - really started coming into its own in the 1980s and 1990s," Woody Turner, program scientist for biological diversity and program manager for ecological forecasting at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told America.gov. "Now I believe it's a logical step to bring living systems into that forecasting paradigm."

"Imagine if it were possible," Ramakrishna Nemani, a research scientist at NASA Ames, wrote along with co-authors in a recent paper about TOPS, "to accurately predict shortfalls or bumper crops, epidemics of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus, or wildfire danger as much as three to six months in advance."

ON THE GROUND

Ecological forecasts can be short term, a few hours to a few days; midterm or seasonal, for example, estimating the start of a growing season; and long term, on decade to century scales.

For officials at Yosemite National Park in east central California, NASA Ames Earth scientists created a forecast of potential changes in the region over the next 50 years. The park covers 3,081 square kilometers and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain.

According to the forecast, Nemani told America.gov, "the snowpack is going to decrease by almost 50 percent and the growing season is going to start almost three weeks earlier than it does now. In response, plants are going to run out of water in the middle of the summer. That would increase the fire frequency and Yosemite already has a lot of fires. That would change the composition of the plants."

"Remember those are model predictions," Edwin Sheffner, deputy chief of Earth science at NASA Ames, told America.gov. "There's no certainty that's going to happen, but those are our model predictions. A challenge of our ongoing research is trying to validate the models to narrow the error bounds around those model estimates."

In another application of ecological forecasting, the NASA Office of Earth Science has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey to develop the Invasive Species Forecasting System, which brings together ecologists, computer scientists, statisticians, remote-sensing-technology scientists, natural resource managers, policymakers and others with an interest in the range of nonindigenous species - plants or animals - that harm the habitats they invade.

The completed system will be able to create regional assessments of invasive species patterns and vulnerable habitats and generate maps of hot spots for potential exotic species invasions.

BIOLOGICAL CROSSROADS

At the junction of North and South America, Central America is a biological crossroads with 7 percent to 8 percent of the planet's biodiversity in less than half of 1 percent of its land mass. Off its shores lies the second-largest system of coral reefs on Earth.

In 1997, the leaders of its seven nations (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama) announced a multinational effort to integrate their conservation efforts across international boundaries. The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is a series of national parks, other protected areas and lands subject to special management regimes extending from southern Mexico to the Colombian border.

As part of this effort, NASA partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the Central American Commission for Environment and Development to help develop a regional visualization and monitoring system called SERVIR. (See "U.S. Agencies Unveil New Storm-Prediction Tool for Central America ( http://www.america.gov/st/space-english/2008/June/20080627105302lcnirellep0.794491.html ).")

SERVIR combines imagery from five NASA satellites with environmental and socioeconomic data through a computer-based geographic information system. It will operate a series of nodes located in the United States and in each Central American country.

Through the system, Central American managers can use satellite imagery to detect wildfires and major changes in land cover, track rainfall and weather patterns and monitor coastal margins and coral reefs. Models will help users appreciate the poorly understood connection between changes in land cover and climate variation.

More information about the Ames Research Center's Ecological Forecasting Laboratory ( http://ecocast.arc.nasa.gov/ ) is available at the NASA Web site.

More information about ecological forecasting ( http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/topics/coasts/ecoforecasting/ ) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is available at the NOAA Web site.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)

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