University of Minnesota

U of M researchers launching effort to get a bird?s-eye view of changing ecosystems

October 16, 2013

In order to study rapidly changing conditions on the ground, researchers are taking to the skies. A $2 million, five-year study funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA aims to take a big leap forward in our ability to monitor ecosystem biodiversity and health on a megascale. Tracking changes in biodiversity over time is key to maintaining vital ecosystem services such as carbon storage and clean drinking water.
A team of researchers led by Jeannine Cavender-Bares in the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) at the University of Minnesota, will make and compare observations of plants and soil ecosystems from the ground and the air. Their goal: to identify the extent to which it’s possible to use remote sensing from trams, airplanes, or even satellites to get a finger on the pulse of four key measures of ecosystem well-being. The research team includes Sarah Hobbie (also CBS), Rebecca Montgomery and Peter Reich from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and scientists from four other institutions in the United States and Canada,
“In the face of global change, monitoring biodiversity and changes in biodiversity is important,” Cavender-Bares says. “We are using novel methods to monitor different kinds of biodiversity, including variation in the genetic makeup of plant and in the attributes that influence how plants interact with their environment. Our goal is to understand the mechanisms that allow us to detect biodiversity from the sky, and to develop methods that can be applied globally.”
Because of the way genetics affects plants’ appearance, and because of the tight link between plants and the condition of the soil in which they are rooted, the researchers suspect there is a whole lot more to learn about ecosystems using remote sensing. The research will make it possible to, in Hobbie’s words, “remotely sense information about various levels of diversity and how variation in diversity alters ecosystem processes, including those that are invisible from space, like decomposition and nutrient cycling that occur in soils.”
Cedar Creek is a perfect place for a study like this, Hobbie says, because it is home to a number of ongoing experiments involving a variety of plant species mixes. Ultimately, the researchers hope the results will make it possible to monitor biodiversity and predict the health of ecosystems on a global scale.
In addition to University of Minnesota researchers, the team also includes collaborators from the University of Alberta in Canada, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the University of Wisconsin, and Appalachian State University. The study will also involve citizen scientists through the Cedar Creek Schoolyard Ecology program, the Minnesota Phenology Network, and other outreach opportunities.
Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is an ecological research site located in central Minnesota with natural habitats that represent the entire state. There is no place of comparable biological diversity so close to the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Cedar Creek researchers are dedicated to understanding our planet’s ecosystems and how they are changing under human pressures. The reserve is owned and operated by the University of Minnesota in cooperation with the Minnesota Academy of Science.


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