A Study of Interconnectivity
Seeing and understanding all of the connections between air, water, land and the living things on or in them in context can actully be beyond our ability. Now environmental and computer scientists atUC Davis are working together to get a "God's-eye view" of part of California, from the ocean off Monterey Bay to Lake Tahoe. A program covering coasts, forests, farmland, urban and suburbanareas has begun to explore some of
California's environmental issues, including a forecast of how climate change will affect the state.
The Coast to Mountain Environmental Transect, or COMET, project was recently funded with three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the agency's program "Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental Observatories". COMET is an ambitious attempt to understand how ocean and land are linked together.
Issues to be explored include: How is climate change going to alter precipitation patterns, summer droughts or snowfall? Will there be more wildfires, and how will that affect climate change? To track events more closely to understand what’s happening, a better network of sensors and a common data base are needed.
COMET will integrate data from hundreds of environmental sensors and put it into a "virtual library" for geosciences. The library will include data ranging from animal counts to climate and chemistry, over distances from a few feet to hundreds of miles, and spanning timelines from minutes to decades. The data will be combined and available through a single web portal. Part of the idea of scientific workflow systems is to allow scientists to spend less time managing data and more time studying it. With COMET, researchers will be able to look at that swath of land and ocean in great detail. Cyberinfrastructure, or "e-infrastructure" is meant to allow scientists to do their work in a better way. Researchers will be able to build models of environmental change and turn them loose within the system, to see if they can recreate real-world events.
During spring off the California coast, cold water wells up from the deep ocean,drawing tothe surface carbon dioxide and nutrients that create some of the world's most productive waters and trigger climate changes hundreds of miles inland.
The upwelling is seasonal and affected by other climate phenomena, such as El Nino events. In years when the upwelling is weak or ends early, ocean production dives, affecting fish and birds. Animals that move back and forth between the sea and land, such as migrating birds or salmon running upriver, may change in numbers or behavior -changing how nutrients move around.
Cold upwelling water generates clouds and fog that move inland, carrying water and trapping carbon dioxide and tiny particles in the air. Researchers want to understand more about how fluctuations in upwelling influence the weather over time periods from a few weeks to months.
Examples include use of a sophisticated radar system to track ocean surface currents over a grid of two-kilometer (one and a quarter-mile) squares stretching 25 miles off the coast.
The marine boundary layer, the cause of the coastal fog that can roll inland from the ocean, is also being studied. When that cold, damp air moves over land, it limits carbon exchange between plants and the atmosphere, trapping carbon dioxide.
On part of Lake Tahoe, researchers are recording water clarity, particles in the air andthe movement of water in the lake. They plan to add moisture probes in the forest tomeasure fire risk around the lake. There are observations of birds, fish and other wildlife.
On land, a similar project,the National Environmental Observatory Network or NEON,has been proposed by the NSF. It would collect environmental data and address issues such asclimate change, biodiversity and infectious diseases. The tools developed for COMET will potentially be prototypes for NEON, and the area covered by COMET will be
's primary contribution to the national network.
Congress expects the various federally funded networks on land and in the ocean to link up.
It is not easy to work across disciplines. For example, it can be difficult to write papers that are comprehensible to both computer scientists and ecologists. The opportunity though, is to create a dramatic shift in how science is done. The result should be a quantum leap in our ability to see changes across wide distances and extended timelines.
This story was based on information in the UC Davis News.
For a related story, see Interconnectedness.
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