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Oregon waterfall cascading down a cliffside surrounded by lush green trees.

A sustainable future: Unravelling the data

By Mary Hare

With areas of distinction in marine science, materials science, data science, biomedical science – and other research areas, OSU faculty and students are fighting climate change and moving the world forward to a greener future – whether that is through harnessing new materials, interpreting complex data or reimagining how organisms can adapt to changes. We share just a few examples in this three-part series.

Oregon State University scientists are rapidly rising to the challenge of our changing climate, supported by hundreds of graduate and undergraduate researchers who are committed to leaving a better world than the one they inherited. In part three of this series, we examine some of the data-driven research that is helping usher in a new era of climate policy and action.

Mathematics and statistics are two of the quickest-growing fields in the country, and it's not hard to guess why. As technology advances, mathematical modeling or statistical analysis can provide a faster, more reliable way to examine lots of data. In practice, these skills can provide critical insight to collaborative projects or inform policymakers on the most environmentally sound decisions.

Wildlife behavior

Making green energy safer for wildlife

Professor of statistics Lisa Madsen and statisticians from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have come together to develop methodology to estimate the total mortality of bats, birds and other small creatures on wind farms and solar facilities. The Endangered Species Act requires that wind farms pay particular attention to endangered or threatened species such as golden eagles, brown pelicans, whooping cranes, condors and Indiana bats, which are killed when they accidentally collide with turbine blades.

Madsen and her colleagues have developed complex statistical tools that estimate the actual number of carcasses when they are undetectable for any reason by taking into account a host of predictor variables such as searcher efficiency, variations in plot sizes and location of inaccessible areas.

The software package, created by the team, will be utilized by government agencies as well as Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc., which has already begun to implement the software to assist their clients. The project has also attracted attention from environmental and government agencies in Canada, South Africa, Portugal and Scotland among others. In addition, the USGS statisticians have conducted workshops demonstrating how to use the software to estimate animal mortality at wind and solar energy facilities.

Wildebeast heard crosses the Mara River in Kenya

A recent study shows that groups of organisms that act together, like this wildebeest herd crossing the Mara River in Kenya, have complex relationships with their ecosystems. Not only are these mass movements affected by the external forces of their environments – they also shape the processes around them. These relationships have a powerful role in the behavior of the group, as well as in the health of the ecosystem.

Collective movement to stabilize ecosystems

In addition to being visually stunning, schools of herring, herds of wildebeest and countless other groups of organisms that act in concert can help complex ecosystems maintain their diversity and stability. Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, a study led by mathematical biologist Benjamin Dalziel demonstrates that when individuals band together to consume resources as a collective group, the surrounding ecosystem is prone to be more resilient and able to support a wider range of species.

Their findings could be an important step toward understanding how cooperation and biodiversity help living systems stay on an even keel. “We constructed simulations in such a way that we could turn collective behavior on and off without changing anything else in the system,” Dalziel said. “What we found was that adding collective behavior was a game changer in the simulations – it stabilized ecosystems.” Since collective behavior is ubiquitous across the planet, playing a prominent role in everything from bacterial biofilms to human cities, the study’s findings have wide significance.

Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass)

In the sagebrush steppe of the intermountain West, invasive species like cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) change soil composition and increase fire intensity and frequency, effectively squeezing out integral vegetation like sagebrush. Post-fire seeding efforts give sagebrush a fighting chance to recover from the impact of this interloper.

Data-driven resource management

The need for native seeds

Climate change and irresponsible land use have resulted in the degradation of millions of acres of land around the country. These disturbances are detrimental to native plant health and often creates opportunities for invasive species to thrive.

Statistician Virginia Lesser served as a panel member for a committee to assess the Need for Native Seeds and the Capacity for Their Supply, sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Native seeds play an essential role in maintaining and restoring natural areas. The committee explored the complex systems of native seed production and use in the United States, and examined their viability for future projects. Their committee was formed in 2019 and developed an interim report in 2020, with a final report expected in 2022.

Smarter forestry practices for a drier climate

As the earth warms, scientists in the Pacific Northwest can be sure of two things: rising temperatures and drier summers. In a state that relies heavily on Douglas fir trees - as a habitat for wildlife as well as economically - understanding how changing temperatures affect forest growth patterns will be critical for forest management. In a collaboration with the College of Forestry, statistics professor Lisa Ganio published a study that found that minor differences in temperature, soil depth or moisture did not significantly influence tree growth patterns. However, growth patterns were significantly impacted by competition, with higher growth in less competitive areas. The results of this study suggest that foresters will be able to focus more attention on other areas, such as habitat preservation.

Changing flood regimes, new projections

The potential for changes in flood regimes due to climate change, in combination with the deep limitations of climate projections, necessitates rethinking how we make flood risk management decisions.

Statistics professor Alix Gitelman participated in a study to develop a new approach for dealing with hydrologic uncertainty and flood management. The developed bottom-up approach was applied to the American River, CA, USA flood management system by first identifying the sensitivity and vulnerability of the system to different climates. To do this, they developed a climate response surface by calculating and plotting Expected Annual Damages (EAD, $/year) under different flood regimes.

Siuslaw National Forest of Oregon

The time it takes a forest to recover after high-severity fires has important implications for how the landscape will respond in the future to changing fire regimes. A warming planet could delay forest recovery by either hindering tree seedling establishment and growth, or through the loss of seed sources if patches of high-severity fire become larger.

Bolstering fire resistance in a changing climate

As fires become more prevalent throughout the west, landscapes are altered in ways that may make them more or less resilient to fire in the future. Enrique Thomann, a mathematics professor, participated in a study published in the Journal of Ecology to examine how changing ecological composition impacts the landscape's ability to resist fire damage in the future - an area that continues to be under-researched.

As the climate warms, there is a growing concern that forest landscapes risk transformation to non- forest systems through alteration of their fire regimes. Fire modifies vegetation composition and structure, including effects on fuel amount and type, fuel connectivity, and canopy- mediated influences on microclimate and fuel moisture. These effects may then shape the spread and severity of subsequent fires.

The strength of fire–vegetation feedbacks (i.e., the degree to which fire- driven changes to vegetation, fuels and microclimate affect the spread and behavior of subsequent fires) is influenced by numerous global change pressures. Given the many interacting variables that influence how ecosystems respond to disturbance, models calibrated to a specific study area are highly valuable in evaluating how that ecosystem responds to alterations of its disturbance regime.

Helping mitigate energy disasters in the Arctic

With expertise that spans disciplines, mathematics professor Malgo Peszynska primarily works on problems related to energy engineering and climate change. Her modeling of transport includes porous media phenomena in aquifers, oil and gas reserves, carbon sequestration, solar cells and the effect of permafrost warming. Perhaps most notable is her use of computational mathematics to model methane hydrate transfer and evolution.

Methane hydrate is an “ice” found primarily in the Arctic permafrost as well as in sub-ocean sediments. Known as one of the largest potential sources of fossil fuel, it is also one of the most risky. Existing in a delicate pressure-temperature equilibrium, exposure to heat could lead to melting that could cause explosions, or the escape of huge quantities of methane gas into the atmosphere.

The specific conditions at which it exists have also meant that it has been exceedingly difficult to study using traditional research tools. This is where using mathematics can be so useful. “As an applied mathematician in this area, the objective is to provide reliable and accurate modeling tools for simulation of various scenarios to help mitigate and contain the possible disasters,” Peszynska said.

Leaving a better world

As one of only three Land-, Sea-, Space- and Sun-Grant institutions in the country, Oregon State University has a commitment of service that extends beyond our campus, state or country borders. Students not only have the opportunity to receive a world-class education, but the opportunity to perform high-level research with faculty who genuinely care about the future of the planet - whether they are biologists, physicists or statisticians.