Forecast: Cloudy With a Chance of Jellyfish

Sep 1, 2015

Science-based weather forecasting dates back some 150 years, and we've grown used to detailed, daily predictions of temperatures, precipitation, winds, and clouds. But nowhere in all those forecasts is there anything about the arrival of lobsters or jellyfish in nearshore waters, or the number of ticks and mosquitos one might encounter. Nick Record, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, wants to change that.

Record works in an emerging field known as ecosystem forecasting. The idea is to use computer modeling to forecast or nowcast natural ecological events, like migrations and blooms. Imagine jellyfish forecasts with the beach report, the probability of lobsters or whales alongside wind speeds in marine weather forecasts, or daily, town-by-town mosquito forecasts. Sounds great, right?

But if you thought weather forecasting is hard (it is), it's nothing compared to the complexity of ecosystem forecasting. In fact, Record says that taking the approach weather forecasters do - starting from physical principles and working up to simulations of real-world phenomena - is unrealistic in most cases. For one, we don't understand the biological and ecological principles well enough. We're also short on data, and then there's the computer power needed to combine a weather or climate model with an ecological model.

Instead, Record says ecosystem forecasting can take advantage of short-cuts - for example, knowing that lobsters move inshore when water temperatures reach a certain threshold, without completely understanding why - and the power of citizen science or crowd-sourcing. Reports from people at the beach or in the woods could, with some quality control in place, be invaluable sources of data to start, groundtruth, or redirect computer models.

There are already numerous web- and social media-based projects that collect observations about birds, flowers, and other ecological phenomena. But what Record would really like to see is an entire social media platform dedicated to sharing and vetting observations that scientists could feed into their models and then post their forecasts back to the public.

"If somebody from Google wants to get in touch with me," Record says, he'd have plenty of ideas.

All joking aside, Record envisions scientists capitalizing on our innate fascination with the natural world, as well as our penchant for sharing our experiences with one another, to create a virtual model of the planet, not as it actually is, but as we perceive it. "Earth through the eyes of humans," he calls it, and he says it could be important in helping us understand our relationship to the planet.