Science Story June 2023

Map master

We all know it’s important to see the big picture. Dr. Ian Breckheimer can confidently say that he does. But he also doesn’t miss the details. With his spatial data platform, he and fellow scientists are building a digital twin of the Gunnison Basin, a highly detailed model of the watershed and its climate and ecosystem. Think of it as a high-tech layered atlas.

It includes the height and identification of trees, from aspens to conifers. It shows the elevation of the hills and dales. And now, the platform has recently added long-term data on climate and snow, including the onset and departure dates of snow for the last 30 years, as well as how snow patterns have varied from year to year.

The data set lives on RMBL’s website. There’s a data catalog with a list of data products and services ranging from data curation and archiving to drone imagery processing and data analysis consulting. Scientists can extract the precise data they need for their field sites.

Collecting field data alone is important. Overlaying information on climate, snow, vegetation, and environmental trends adds a whole new dimension. To researchers, the spatial data platform is a big boon.

Dr. Breckheimer says that at least a half dozen projects are already using the data. Researchers are looking at male and female bee populations, which change depending on the climate. The data also help scientists study marmots, plant phenology, and other living subjects.

What’s more, the data can now tell RMBL researchers when they can get to their sites. That’s because this year, Dr. Breckheimer’s team is using the data to forecast the timing of snowmelt. Combining the long-term record of snow from satellite, airplane, and drone imagery with data from SNOTEL (snow telemetry) stations, which measure snowpack in real time, the team can provide a solid estimate of when field sites will be snow-free. Like farmers, field researchers are dependent on the whims of Mother Nature. So the forecasting feature has become a big hit.

Recreation trail users are no less enthusiastic about it.

Dr. Breckheimer’s own research centers on how plants and pollinators use the landscape. He’s reconstructing landscape patterns of flowering across the basin. To do this requires knowing where the flowers are. But because plants are sensitive to climate, you also need to know how the climate varies across the basin. As it turns out, it varies a lot.

While developing the spatial data platform, Dr. Breckheimer was surprised to find that the Gunnison Basin has so many different micro-climates. “There’s nearly as much climate variation in the Gunnison Basin as there is in the entire southern Rockies. That’s a huge amount of climate variability in such a relatively small area,” he says. It’s one of the reasons RMBL is a great place to research the influence of climate on ecosystems.

Another surprising finding to emerge from the project is the variety of snowfall and snowmelt trends at different elevations. From billy barr’s decades-long snow records, we know that spring is arriving slightly earlier at Gothic than in years past. But at lower elevations, earlier snowmelt trends are much stronger. Climate warming isn’t consistent across the basin. Some areas are warming faster than others.

Meanwhile, the domain of the spatial data platform continues to grow. The team has begun making detailed maps of the Taylor River Basin, which is drawing interest from researchers for many reasons, among them its dryer climate and substantially different types of forests.

As the spatial data mapping continues to expand to broader areas, Dr. Breckheimer believes that his research will go beyond a strictly scientific endeavor to one that directly affects those living in the West. “It will provide concrete value to those charged with keeping our public lands healthy,” he says.

Ian Breckheimer is a landscape ecologist and research scientist in spatial ecology and data synthesis at RMBL. Originally from Saluda, North Carolina, Ian and his wife Lizza moved to the Gunnison Valley from Cambridge, Massachusetts, after completing his NSF postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Ian’s research focuses on how landscapes, and the plants and people that live there, are adapting to global change. Much of his work links field measurements of ecological processes (such as plant growth and flowering) to their landscape context via imagery collected by drones, airplanes, and satellites.