University of Vermont researchers will play a leadership role in a project designed to predict where populations of plants and animals in New England will move as their current locations become less hospitable in a warming world. Data generated by the project will help New England farmers and rural communities plan and adapt to the range shifts.

The National Science Foundation awarded $4 million over four years to the EPSCoR Research Infrastructure project to develop novel approaches and software for modeling, visualizing and forecasting spatial and temporal data.

The research team — which includes faculty from the University of Maine and Champlain College, in addition to UVM — will build some of the first mechanistic models of shifts in species ranges in response to climate change. The interdisciplinary research initiative is being led by the University of Maine.

By harnessing diverse current and historical data with space and time dimensions, scientists will be able to better predict and help rural communities respond to the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

The goal is to better understand how plant and animal species — from forest plants and wildlife to diseases and their carriers, and agricultural crops — will respond to a changing climate in the next century. Data science and modeling will help inform farmers’ adaptation strategies, according to the research team.

The four-year initiative has multifaceted economic implications for Maine and Vermont, which are both EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) states. It will help create a trained workforce and strengthen research in the high-growth field of data science, provide insights to help conserve natural resources critical to livelihoods and cultural identity, and help farmers and other community stakeholders better prepare and manage their crops.

Co-principal investigators on the project are Brian McGill, University of Maine professor of biological sciences, who has a joint appointment in the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions; Nicholas Gotelli, the George H. Perkins Professor of Zoology, and Meredith Niles, assistant professor of food systems, both at UVM; Timothy Waring, University of Maine associate professor of social-ecological systems modeling; and Matthew Dube, assistant professor in computer information systems at the University of Maine. Gotelli and Niles are also both fellows of UVM’s Gund Institute for the Environment.

“This research brings together experts in biodiversity, disease dynamics, cultural evolution, agriculture and computer science,” said Gotelli, who has collaborated extensively in the last 15 years on research related to community ecology and biodiversity response to global change. “With this diversity of perspectives, we are excited to begin working together,”

Other members of the research team are Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, UVM assistant professor of computer science; Laura Corlew, UMA associate professor of psychology; and Narine Hall, assistant professor and program director in data science at Champlain College.

Using historical data, Gotelli and McGill will lead development of a new model of how hundreds of species across geographic ranges in the United States will respond to climate change over time. The model seeks to better predict the transient dynamics of species’ range shifts, including the effects of human modification of landscapes, for each decade (2030–2120). 

Hébert-Dufresne will extend these models to explore the effects of climate change on diseases. This will be the first Eastern U.S. analysis of species of animals, plants, crops and zoonotic diseases, such as Lyme, West Nile and Equine Encephalitis.

"Communities adapt when they face public crises like climate change or infectious diseases,” Hébert-Dufresne said. “Solving climate change and infectious diseases will involve bottom-up behavior changes and innovations, not just top-down policies."

Niles will develop a large-scale spatiotemporal dataset that will focus on and inform farmer adaptation behaviors. The data will include projected range shifts in crops, models of key crop weeds and pathogens, and socioeconomic and demographic information on the rural resource users.

“Using data science to better predict how climate change will affect farmers and rural communities leverages technology but couples it with people,” said Niles. “The research will also improve understanding of potential responses to these changes and the potential livelihood impacts of such changes.”

Together, the work of Waring and Niles will be the first to leverage significant ecological and social datasets to study climate adaptation in a spatiotemporal context.

The project also seeks to go beyond producing new research and tools for scientists by developing the communication systems and workforce development needed to effectively create, implement and advance them in the next 100 years.

The project has significant implications for workforce development in data science, an expanding job market in New England. In addition to building research capacity and expertise at the four higher education institutions, the project will provide curriculum and training in data science at the high school, undergraduate, graduate and faculty levels.

“This project will help to train the future data science workforce in Maine and Vermont, and will build capacity to utilize spatiotemporal data within the existing workforce,” according to the research team. “Our workforce development plans extend from high school students to senior faculty members. In addition, our outreach to the agricultural sector will help farmers make more informed decisions that impact their livelihoods, the character of rural communities and the quality of food that is available in Northern New England.”


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