MAR 13, 2020 7:13 AM PDT

Ecological forecasting: dipole edition

Imagine if we could forecast ecological changes just as we can forecast the weather. That’s just what new research published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution hopes to do. Thanks to decades of detailed weather data monitoring sweeping changes in climate, the way these changes are occurring are becoming more and more predictable, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologist Ben Zuckerberg. And that predictability could have huge implications for both conservation measures and agriculture, not to mention public safety.

"Plant and animal populations respond to climate at continental scales," says Zuckerberg. "Going forward, we want to know how do we observe this connection? How do we measure it? How do we track how these dynamics are changing?"

The video above provides an example of ecological dipoles.

The study, which was published earlier this month, analyzes ecosystem responses to ecological dipoles, a term that Zuckerberg and his colleagues are using to describe the results of climate patterns like El Niño. It has been observed that such climate patterns produce large-scale, opposing ecological outcomes, making it so that we can see “famine on one continent and feast on another.”

With the help of citizen scientists, scientists like Zuckerberg think that we are that much closer to understanding the link between climate and ecology. "We are beginning that revolution right now in ecology where we are able to collect data at a scale that matches what climatologists have been able to use," comments Zuckerberg. "Having data that's been collected over continental scales, in real-time, and that spans decades is really what you need to analyze the regularity and changes in both climate and ecological dipoles."

Also to note are the ecological stations that the National Science Foundation has begun implementing around the country. Similar to the well-established concept of weather stations, these ecological stations will improve access to constant data collection.

Zuckerberg and his team have initiated their first large project to evaluate ecological dipoles. As Science Daily explains, the team will rely on “citizen science data to track deviations in normal bird migrations and the boom-and-bust cycle of seed production to try to identify a link back to climate across the entire continent.” This interconnectedness between climate and ecology is ever-present and Zuckerberg hopes his research will help to highlight that.

Sources: Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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