New Insights

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within Himself make pure!” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

An unusually warm April breeze carries the echoes of pulleys, pistons, and bytes across the Elk Mountains as the mists of Brigadoon lift to reveal the wonders of Gothic.

RMBL is changing how scientists come to know ecosystems around the world by integrating engineering and computational sciences into traditional terrestrial field science. From traverse boards (pictured on e-newsletter) that helped 16th century mariners navigate the oceans to Alvin, the deep-sea submersible submarine operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, engineering and computational sciences have always been critical to discovery of the world’s oceans. However, armed with only a pen and notebook, a crafty field biologist can still conduct research worthy of the top science journals.

But the winds of change are blowing in. From using water isotopes in annual growth rings to reconstruct water budgets of trees back hundreds of years, to using spectrometers to infer genetics from patterns of absorption and reflection of light from trees, engineering is not only expanding what we can see, but also making it possible to cost effectively deploy more sensors. And with increased ability to deploy sensors on drones, planes, and satellites, we can efficiently make measurements across entire landscapes. With a dash of field biology and machine learning, we get a change not just in the quantity of data that can be collected, but a transformation in what can be done.

The complexity of environmental systems, the large number of interacting species and nutrient flows, poses challenges to generating universal insights. It’s one thing for a physicist to plot the paths of quarks and another for a myrmecologist to track ants. The park in your neighborhood is nothing like the park on the other side of the city.  What can one tell you about the other? And not only are there lots of parts, but the spatial scales range from bacteria for whom a teaspoon of soil is an entire universe and a day a lifetime, to elephants wandering continents for decades.

Just as engineering opened oceans to exploration and investigation, emerging technology is making it possible for scientists to confront the challenges of environmental complexity. As a transmission uses gears to connect engines and wheels turning at different frequencies, environmental sensors and machine learning can be used to connect biological processes happening on vastly different spatial and temporal scales to unveil the world’s complexity.

Why does this matter? Improving our ability to generalize insights from one ecosystem to another will enable better management of environmental processes such as water, fire, food production, and human disease.  It can also help us better predict complex environmental processes, such as linking local ecological processes that control the flow of carbon in global climate models.

To learn more about RMBL’s partnership with engineers and computational scientists, read the adjoining interview of Dr. Jenifer Blacklock, Director of Western Colorado University’s Partnership Program involving CU-Boulder and the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering. You can also learn more about the partnership from this article in the Gunnison Country Times, as well as this article in the Crested Butte News about a congressional earmark that RMBL is receiving to use plane-based hyperspectral imagery to better understand fire and drought.

Personally, I long for the days of a remote and quiet Gothic, sitting among snowfields, counting ants. But morally, I embrace seeing RMBL rising to the challenge of harnessing the power of science and technology to enable future generations to serve as strong stewards of Earth’s tapestry of life. Join us in lifting the mists!