May 8, 2013

A Better Way to Answer Ecological Questions

Looking at the Present & the Future of CBI's Ecological Evaluation Modeling System

The people who oversee federal and private wildlands contend with fire risks, development, mining, timber production, rare and endangered species, recreational demands, water quality and availability, ecological risks, climate change, and variable budgets. On top of that, the data they need to analyze to make their decisions come in many forms from multiple sources. For a land manager this can be bewildering!

At CBI, we do a lot of work trying to make life easier for land managers. After all, if they know where the ecologically sensitive lands are, they can do a better job protecting them. Often our job includes creating maps from different types of data from different sources to evaluate the ecological health of a region. For instance, to identify the areas most suited for species conservation, we might need to combine road data from a state department of transportation, invasive species data from federal government agencies, and endangered species distribution data from biological researchers.

To do this type of analysis, CBI developed software called the Ecological Evaluation Modeling System or EEMS. The formal description of EEMS is a hierarchical, fuzzy-logic-based, decision support modeling system. A less formal description is a software package that allows a user to combine different kinds of data to answer an ecological question about a landscape. With EEMS, a user builds a diagram representing how various data relate to each other and the ecological evaluation being considered (e.g. what is the ecological health across the landscape) (Figure 1), feeds input data into the model and gets output data from the model. Input and output data are usually in the form of spatial data that can be mapped (Figure 2).

Figure 1: EEMS models can combine a lot of data. a) a full EEMS model. b) model detail.


Figure 2: An example of how EEMS combines data from two maps to produce a new map.

CBI’s ecological modeling team uses EEMS to analyze current conditions of landscapes in California, Arizona, and Colorado, and we’re sure to use it in many other areas. But we’ve also asked ourselves what about future conditions? Population is increasing and the climate is changing – and the best science tells us it will continue to do so. How will these conditions affect wildlife habitat? Will suitable habitat exist as climate changes? Will species be able to migrate fast enough (plants, for instance have to migrate over generations)? Will migration corridors exist, or will cities, highways, mountain ranges, and river valleys make it impossible for species to get to the conditions they need to survive?

To help answer questions like these, we have begun developing EEMS-3D. This new version of EEMS will run on files that track data through time. So for instance, we could look at how urban growth has fragmented a habitat in the past, or how the extent of a species possible habitat will change under future projected changes in climate. In addition, this version of EEMS will run over the web. Our eventual goal is to allow scientists and land managers to access both EEMS-3D as well as the data they need to build and run models that will help them answer a variety of ecological questions and make well-informed decisions for today and for the future.

To read more about the EEMS tool, CLICK HERE

About the author:
Tim Sheehan, M.S.
Ecological Modeler, Team Lead- Decision Support & GIS
Tim is an Ecological Modeler at CBI working on a wide range of computational models to analyze alternative futures for ecosystems. In addition to his recently completed master's degree in Biology from the University of Oregon, he also has master's degrees in Geology and Computer Science.
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