Synthetic ecology across scales: a follow-up discussion on hurdles to synthesis

This will be a follow-up to a round-table last July on hurdles to synthesis (here). Look forward to an informal discussion on the process of data synthesis, based on a poster presentation by the GoA group at the CERF meeting last November in Portland, OR. A list of questions for discussion will be posted before the round-table on Wed, Jan 6th.

Here’s a link to the full poster (pdf): CERF 2015_Poster_Large

Large-scale ecological syntheses are increasingly important to understanding patterns, processes, and effects at an ecosystem scale.  However, conducting such syntheses requires lots of data which frequently is considered either large data (large-scale, designed to identify broad patterns not mechanisms, often many investigators or organizational) or small data (intensive, designed to identify mechanisms, often single/few investigators).  We explored a case where we integrated large and small data to examine questions across spatial and temporal scales in the Gulf of Alaska, focusing on the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  However, for this discussion we will be focusing on the process of synthesizing disparate datasets rather than the actual data themselves.  Key to integrating data for synthetic analyses is the availability of informative documentation of the data.  We used Ecological Metadata Language (EML), online code sharing (GitHub), and an online data repository (DataONE) to document the data we used and to aid in transparency of these analyses.  Some of the hurdles encountered included a wide variety of poorly documented data formats, and fragmented research (through space and time).  Potential solutions include standardization of data formatting and storage across organizations, and better integration of research efforts by large organizations (government agencies, academia, etc.).  We hope to foster a discussion about these hurdles and potential solutions to synthesizing ecological data across scales.

Rachael Blake, NCEAS Post Doc
Jessica Couture, NCEAS Research Associate
Colette Ward, NCEAS Post Doc

Open Science with the Ocean Health Index [Nov 18, 2015]

The Ocean Health Index (OHI) is a framework to assess the state of our marine systems. With a definition of ‘healthy’ that includes sustainable human use, the OHI scores locations from 0-100 depending on how sustainably their waters provide a suite of benefits to people. The OHI framework was first used to assess all coastal nations globally, and was published in 2012 (Halpern et al. 2012, Nature).
Following the 2012 publication, the OHI framework has been used to assess smaller-scale locations, most often states or provinces within a single nation. These smaller spatial scales often have information that better represents local characteristics of marine systems and are also often the scale at which policy decisions are made.
To date, eleven assessments using the OHI framework have been completed at global, national, and regional scales, four of which have been led by independent academic or government groups. To facilitate these assessments, we have developed a suite of open-source tools and instruction. The OHI Toolbox provides structure for data organization and storage, with data processing and goal modeling done in the programming language R and RStudio for reproducibility and repeatability. The OHI Toolbox is stored on the open-source online platform GitHub, which allows for transparency and collaboration and also houses websites to display and communicate methods and results with interactive visualizations. More information can be found at (currently under a major restructuring and improvement, stay tuned!).
Julia Stewart Lowndes, PhD
Project Scientist, Ocean Health Index
National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS)
University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)
735 State Street, Suite 300
Santa Barbara, CA, 93101, USA
ohi • ohi-science • github • twitter

Habitats, coastal protection and the SNAP Coastal Defenses Working Group

For this round-table, I’ll start by giving an overview of a number of topics around the fascinating field of coastal ecosystems and coastal risk reduction. I’ll give an update on the activities of the SNAP Coastal Defenses Working Group and my work within this group, touch upon a closely coastal hazards assessment exercise in Papua New Guinea and an upcoming project on mangrove restoration for coastal resilience. I would like to combine this talk with a discussion on the challenges of small data; of bringing together diverse disciplines to bear on a single issue and; of finding ways to tie these disparate strands together.

For a sneak preview, here is an outline of some results from an almost (but never) complete meta-analysis:

We synthesize global evidence from field measurements of wave and storm surge reductions in natural coastal habitats and data on the costs and benefits of habitat restoration projects targeted at coastal protection. 76 field measurements show that coastal habitats can reduce wave heights up to 79% (or wave energy up to 96%). Coral reefs are the most effective habitats for wave reduction, followed by salt-marshes, mangroves and seagrass and kelp beds. In addition to waves, coastal mangrove and marsh wetlands can reduce storm surge heights by up to 70% over extents of several kilometers. We find a strong relationship between incident wave heights and wave reduction extents for all habitat types. Other critical biophysical parameters that influence wave reduction include habitat width (coral reefs and seagrass/kelp) and vegetation height (mangroves, salt-marshes). We also discuss the influence of a few engineering ratios (e.g. the ratio of wave height H over water depth, h) on wave reduction extents. We conduct the first global review of the costs and benefits of past and on-going habitat restoration projects targeted at coastal protection. The projects provide a wide range of coastal protection and risk reduction benefits including reductions in erosion, flood damage and engineering costs. Quantitative assessments of benefit-cost ratios and comparisons to engineering structures suggest that mangrove projects are the most cost-effective and are, on average, twice as cheap as comparable engineering structures for wave reduction.

Hope to see you there!


July 1: Emotions in Scientific Work and Scientific Creativity

The sociology of emotions and the sociology of science arose concurrently (circa 1975-present), but connections between these subfields have been rare. Existing research pleads for greater integration and contextualization. This talk will synthesize and critically assess eight decades of research on emotional aspects of science. Taken together, extant literature indicates that emotions pervade science as a practice, profession and social institution. Emotions support the ability to perceive and observe empirical patterns and relationships, and to make specific types of knowledge claims. They are elemental facets of scientists’ career evaluations and work life, and their influence on the research process informs and consequentially impacts the form and content of scientific knowledge. Collective emotional states and affective relationships are also essential for scientific collaboration and for fomenting large-scale collective action in the form of scientific social movements. Finally, emotions gave original impetus to science as a distinctive social institution, and continue to support it by acting as agents of social control in the scientific community. Overall, research on emotions and science is rapidly emerging as a generative area of research in its own right, and has the potential to significantly advance general sociology.

Dr. John Parker

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Looking for hotspots while the world gets hotter: multi-species genetic data inform landscape-scale conservation in the face of climate change in the San Joaquin Desert of California.

Global climate change can create patterns of biodiversity where once-widespread species become restricted to small islands of persistence, commonly called climate refugia. Species can subsequently recolonize the intervening spaces between the islands, masking the historical range restriction. Advances in molecular genetic technology now allow us to see the signature of these historical restriction events. In our ongoing study of desert vertebrates in the San Joaquin Valley, we are layering patterns of population subdivision from multiple species into a composite map of historical population centers. We have significant population subdivison as well as pattern concordance among some species, suggesting past refuges in the Panoche Hills and the Carrizo Plain. A parallel study projecting the distribution of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard following the current climate change event shows both spots as potential refugia, suggesting the tantalizing possibility that contemporary hotspots may serve as future redoubts.


Michael Westphal
Bureau of Land Management
Hollister Field Office, CA

IPCC, Oceans and a 2°C warming target

Next month, the global science community will come together ahead of the COP21 of the UNFCCC in December to discuss the key issues concerning climate change. Discussion will include a focus on the ocean. The ocean is critical to life on Earth through its regulation of atmospheric gases, stabilisation of planetary heat, and provision of food and resources to well over 4 billion people worldwide. I will start with a peek at the processes for the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC, including the roles of the authors, editors and expert reviewers, coordination across chapters and working groups and assessment of the literature. AR5 included a number of oceans chapters for the first time, which identified serious risks to marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal livelihoods. Focusing on these, I’ll discuss the key findings, updating with recent knowledge, with particular reference to the 2°C global warming target.

Elvira Poloczanska
CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, Brisbane, Australia
Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

CSIRO Hobart -    - photo by Bruce Miller 4/2008

CSIRO Hobart – – photo by Bruce Miller 4/2008


Meat, Demand, and Development

Global meat consumption is expected to rise dramatically in coming decades as consumers from emerging nations increase the amount of meat and animal protein in their diet.  The “ecological hoofprint” of the livestock industry is already enormous, and it is expected to increase.   Influential explanations on rising meat consumption (“livestock revolution,”  “nutrition transition,” “hamburger connection”) assert a correlation between meat demand and rising income.   The concept of demand requires elaboration in order to comprehend increasing global meat consumption and associated environmental and health impacts.  I will discuss the political-economic processes and cultural considerations that contribute to demand in the emerging nation of Brazil, with a secondary emphasis on China.  The aim of this project is to begin to build toward an enhanced understanding of the factors that structure the demand for meat in emerging countries and to better understand the material and discursive dimensions of development as revealed through meat.

Jeffrey Hoelle
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, UC Santa Barbara
Hoelle Culture and Environment Lab
Jeffrey Hoelle


Environmental Literacy for the Next Generation: Integrating science, pedagogy and communication

Carol Blanchette, Associate Research Biologist from the Marine Science Institute will be our Roundtable speaker next week. Please join us for a lively discussion on an interesting topic!


Abstract: “If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live” (Leshner 2007, AAAS CEO). This sentiment has been broadly embraced by scientists and non-scientists in recent years, along with the idea that scientists have a responsibility to share the meaning and implications of their work, and that an engaged public encourages sound public decision-making. Effective communication of science has become critically important in the environmental sciences, where public understanding of key environmental issues ranging from climate change to sustainable resource management has important policy implications.  In this roundtable I will provide a brief overview of some of my experience and activities in the realm of science education and communication, and I will provide an overview of OCTOS, a new hub for environmental communication and science education activities on the UCSB campus. I will lead a discussion focused on how we (as scientists) can help to build communication capacity, serve as resources for science educators, and how to evaluate the efficacy of these efforts.

Modelling ecosystem services to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

There is a new SNAP Working Group in town, at NCEAS, and we’re going to use this round-table to interact with the group, find out what they’re doing, and offer our ideas as well. This will hopefully be the first of several such interactions with visiting working groups, so please do come along, participate, and give us your suggestions! Here’s a description of this week’s interaction, which is being led by Sarah Jones from Bioversity International:

The SNAP workshop group on Making Ecosystems Count in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be meeting in Santa Barbara 13-16 April to define the modelling steps that are needed to make the Natural Capital Project ecosystem service assessment toolkit (InVEST) feed into selected ecosystem service indicators. The aim is for these indicators to show relative progress towards SDG targets as mediated by ecosystem services, when these services are altered by different national land use policy and infrastructure investment scenarios.

We will present the project progress so far, our target indicators and draft model workflows, then we will open it to the floor for a discussion on how these models might be strengthened and delivered within project timeframes.

Sarah Jones
Ecosystem Services and Resilience Research Assistant
Bioversity International Montpelier, France

Implications of food web constraints for community assembly in space

Spatial variation in diversity and community composition is challenging to interpret within an ecological framework that was conceptually built for local disconnected populations. The meta-community concept was, in this regard, an important achievement in community ecology. However, there remains a considerable gap between theoretical developments and empirical tests of the concept, especially for complex communities with multiple trophic levels. Using the classical Theory of Island Biogeography as a starting point, I extract predictions from theory and test these in a multi-trophic plant-insect grassland assembly experiment evaluating multiple stressors associated with landscape-level anthropogenic perturbations. In the current context of global environmental change, I argue that it is time for ecology to scale up current meta-community knowledge to the ecosystem function level, thereby providing the basis for a stronger meta-ecosystem theory.

Eric Harvey

University of Zürich, Eawag: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Department of Aquatic Ecology