NASA’s EcoPro software could help researchers forecast biodiversity with greater accuracy

35% of Earth’s animals and plants could go extinct by 2050 due to climate change, according to a study published in the journal PNAS, and the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that, today, more than 1 million species are endangered.

Picture of Giant Sequoias

Giant sequoias at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. EcoPro will provide scientists with a new tool for projecting ecosystem health in a wide variety of applications, such as the iconic forests of the Sierra Nevada in California. (Image Credit: National Park Service / Alison Taggart-Barone)

A new NASA-funded software framework will make it easier for researchers to study how climate change and human activities impact biodiversity. The framework, EcoPro, will make it easier for scientists to use climate model projections, satellite data products, and ecological models to create ecological projections with unprecedented accuracy.

“Those projections will help researchers understand how ecosystems will unravel as the planet continues to heat up, and could also help guide decision makers seeking to protect at-risk ecosystems, buying time for humanity to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the climate,” said Peter Kalmus, a data scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and an EcoPro Co-Investigator.

Analytic collaborative frameworks include software toolkits, collections of data analytics tools, data visualization tools, and collaboration support tools that help scientists organize data gathered by disparate networks of ground, airborne, and spaceborne sensors and develop models and derived data products within a single comprehensive framework.

Those data sets appear in a wide variety of sizes and formats, making that task exceptionally difficult. Analytic collaborative frameworks like EcoPro bridge the gap and make it easier for scientists to incorporate a wide variety of data sets into a unified analytic framework.

Seungwon Lee, JPL data scientist and Principal Investigator for this project, explained that EcoPro is unique because it includes a data processing component, a visualization component, and a collaboration component within the same system. It’s a one-stop-shop for scientists who want to process raw data, turn that processed data into a visualization, and share the research process with a team.

“Instead of just having an analytic server, or having just visualization, we want to integrate those things so it can support different aspects of a project,” said Lee. “Once we run this ecological projection workflow, we generate application-ready data products, and those will go to our visualization server, where the application users can use them.”

EcoPro will also include an intuitive web portal, which will make it easier for resource managers, policy makers to access data products describing the impact of climate change on ecological systems of interest – how well the ecological systems survive given a different greenhouse gas emission scenario.

Kalmus said that one of their goals is to maximize the value of data NASA gathers with Earth observation instruments for understanding how climate change impacts individual ecosystems and organisms.

“I was just really interested in the idea of taking climate models and downscaling them and then connecting those downscale projections to the health of an organism, whether it’s a coral, a kelp, a tree, or a human,” he explained.

As NASA prepares to launch a full suite of science missions to observe biodiversity, such as the ocean-focused PACE mission and the land-focused SBG mission, preparing new technologies for transforming the upcoming torrents of raw information into datasets fit for real-world applications is essential for maximizing the utility of collected science data.

“It’s still the relatively early days for these kinds of ecological projection analyses, and we should be working as quickly as we can to make them as skilled and as validated as we can,” said Kalmus.

Currently, Lee and Kalmus are working on three unique case studies to demonstrate EcoPro’s utility for a diverse range of applications. These will include detailed ecological models of coral reefs, giant kelp forests, and conifer forests.

ESTO’s Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST) program funds this research.

Gage TaylorNASA Earth Science Technology Office