The Ecological Forecasting Initiative aims to aid efforts to use data collected in the field to forecast future ecosystem changes.

Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography

An ecologist with an eye toward forecasting the future

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY—The ultimate goal of many biologists is to be able to predict how their system—be it a genome, a cell, an organism, or an entire ecosystem—will change through time. For ecologists, there is added urgency as many are trying to figure out the best way to help plants and animals cope with climate change. Toward that end, Michael Dietze of Boston University has helped galvanize researchers to establish the Ecological Forecasting Initiative (EFI). First launched 1 year ago, EFI is a grassroots effort to set standards, encourage interdisciplinary approaches, and develop forecasting methods that can be applied to many situations, including fisheries management, wildlife migrations, algal blooms, wildfire patterns, and human disease.

ScienceInsider chatted with Dietze this week here at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), where he organized a special session to take stock of the latest forecasting efforts and to announce new funding for the initiative.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Tell me about the initiative.

A: This is an international grassroots initiative that really grew out of a series of workshops, most notably a workshop sponsored by the National Ecological Observatory Network and the U.S. Geological Survey, that lead to a 2018 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. EFI specifically aims to tackle cross-cutting challenges that span across the breadth of different forecasting projects. It’s been very exciting to see this community come together so quickly. We have working groups focused on a range of topics, from theory and decision science to diversity and education, as well as developing new tools and cyberinfrastructure.

Michael Dietz

Q: Who are the forecasters?

A: Ecological forecasting is definitely an interdisciplinary endeavor. The broader initiative includes decision and social scientists, statisticians, computer scientists, and folks from the physical environmental sciences as well as ecologists.

Q: What is the current state of ecological forecasting—what can we do now?

A: There is a sizable chunk of work in ecology currently dedicated to long-term projections of potential responses to climate change and other environmental perturbations on a roughly centennial timescale. You can see some examples of these forecasts on EFI’s Forecasting Projects web page.

Q: What more needs to be done?

A: Recently, various members of the research community have been advocating for forecasting across a broader portfolio of timescales, including many more near-term forecasts. Near-term forecasts have the potential to be relevant to society and decision-makers.

Q: What was the most exciting work presented at the ecological forecasting session?

A: The breadth of examples of ecological processes that the community is working on. This spanned from human disease (such as tick-borne diseases and dengue), to monarch butterfly populations, to reservoir management, to marine algal blooms, to the global carbon cycle. For example, in Florida, the Smart Reservoir project uses sensors in the field to provide water quality forecasts 16 days into the future. They help reservoir managers make real-time decisions about how to treat the lake, improving water quality and reducing treatment costs.

Q: How is the initiative being paid for?

A: EFI has been a project of passion for the organizing team—we’ve had good luck getting workshop funding for the initiative, and we’ve had our individual forecasting projects funded, but we’re just now starting to seek out funding for the initiative itself. We recently received funding from the National Science Foundation for a research coordination network, which guarantees that we’ll continue to have funding for the next 5 years for meetings and coordination. As part of that, we’ll also be launching a forecasting competition, which we announced at [the ESA meeting], but the details for the competition itself won’t be set until 2020.

Q: What’s next?

A: It really feels like we’re at a tipping point of starting to change the way ecologists approach their science and how that science can serve society.