Director’s Blog 6.09.20

Director’s Blog June 9, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD

RMBL would like to add another dimension to your research.  Three dimensions to be precise.

Time is already a RMBL strength.  With many scientists returning to Gothic for decades of research, we have one of the largest collections of long-term research.   Our goal is to add space to time so scientists can use four dimensions to drive discovery.

RMBL made nod towards the importance of place when we established our integrated Geographic Information/Global Positioning Systems 15 years ago.  Knowing exact locations has allowed us to manage research, minimizing disruption to research plots.

Technology is converging, however, to enable much more.  We can measure more things at lower costs.  We can deploy sensors on a range of platforms, from satellites, to planes, to drones, to humans (and their smart phones).  Building on digital elevation models and hyperspectral data, a range of data products are available to RMBL scientists.  Furthermore, machine learning techniques make it possible to process massive data flows.

These resources have the potential transform field science.  The combinations of technologies make it possible to link climate/weather to physiology, behavior, and population dynamics on ecologically relevant scales, including snow departure/onset, near-surface air temperature, and soil temperature and moisture.  The spatial data products can be used to generate fine-grained insights into ecosystem dynamics and species interactions, taking advantage of data products like gross and net productivity, vegetation structural characteristics, phenology, and species distributions.  These products can be used to contextualize individual plots.  Heterogeneity that overwhelmed experimental design can now be a tool to understand fundamental processes as well as move ecology towards prediction.

Knowing that adoption is often slowed not by a lack of interest but because new technology involves new barriers, RMBL hired Dr. Ian Breckheimer to establish RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform.  Not only is Ian supporting drone-based data (email him at with requests), and access to existing data sets, but he has is also training, and collaborating with, scientists to turn these spatial data products into insights about pattern and process. If you are stuck in a home office unable to travel to Gothic, please consider whether there is a way Ian can support your research through drone-based data collection or whether now might be a good time to learn how to integrate these spatial tools into your research.

This is a big investment for RMBL.  Our goal is not just to assist you with the logistics, such as meals, housing, and access, but to enable research tools that would be hard for any single scientist to develop on their own.  Please give us your feedback, including how we can better develop the tools to serve your needs (see Ian’s implementation plan), whether there are barriers that we can help with, or even to let us know that these tools are just not for you.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or suggestions about future blog posts.  With the virus it will be hard to connect this summer.  If you have a moment, I’d love to schedule a zoom call to hear how you are doing professionally and personally.  Stay in touch!

And in case there is any doubt (generated by either the virus or 5 inches of snow last night), summer is happening!  It feels like a minor miracle to see students and scientists in Gothic again!  Hallelujah!