KU News Release
Contact: Jen Humphrey, Natural History Museum, (785) 864-2344.
KU aims to predict environmental change with $850,000 Microsoft research project
LAWRENCE — A collaborative project with the research arm of Microsoft will help University of Kansas researchers harness data to predict biodiversity changes in complex environments such as Mexico’s cloud forests.
The project with the European Science Initiative of Microsoft Research Inc., in Cambridge, England, provides an $850,000 grant to assist investigators at KU and the national biodiversity commission in Mexico. Together they will analyze diverse sources of information, such as data from natural history museum specimens, climate model projections and satellite imagery. The result will be detailed forecasts of how environmental change can affect the plant and animal diversity of the forests.
The most likely users of such combined information are nongovernment organizations and federal and state governments, said Jorge Soberón, lead investigator for the project and senior scientist at KU’s Biodiversity Institute.
“Right now, organizations rely on educated guesses when they want to preserve a threatened area such as a cloud forest in Mexico,” Soberón said. “Is the best area to preserve north of an existing reserve or further down the mountain slope? This project will compile a large database of information and develop the tools to forecast future scenarios. Future choices will be made with hard science instead of guesses.”
The research will focus on theoretical and practical aspects using the “geography of biodiversity” — including the distribution of species, habitat and climate — to develop ways to forecast changes in cloud forest biodiversity.
In addition to its application for cloud forests, the research also will explore the best ways to combine different types of data. Creating scientific workflows, which allow effective replication of complex analyses, will help researchers harness and model information from multiple sources. For example, workflows can allow investigators to harvest data from multiple information servers around the world, feed them into geographic analysis platforms and develop detailed visualizations and interpretations of the results.
A third component of the project will be to help researchers create a virtual world. Because ecological modeling is complicated and abstract, researchers need a way to test their results.
“The virtual world will give us ways to test tools we have been developing for 10 years,” Soberón said. “We want to create a very complex simulation, not just a beautiful envelope with nothing inside.”
The project with Microsoft Research Inc. is the first corporate research grant awarded to the Biodiversity Institute. The institute, which includes KU’s Natural History Museum, is a leader in the computational field of biodiversity informatics.
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