Using data to predict the future of ecosystems
DRIVEN BY DATA
Through its Data + Decisions Destination Area, Virginia Tech inventively interweaves data science into its curriculum. Meet a faculty member using data in novel and world-changing ways.
During the 21st century, citizens around the world will continue to face grand environmental challenges, including climate change, land use, and invasive species. How we deal with and adapt to these ecological challenges will have global implications.
Associate Professor Quinn Thomas of the College of Natural Resources and Environment is a quantitative ecosystem ecologist using data to tackle these issues. His research focuses on understanding how forests and other ecosystems will respond to global environmental change. By harnessing the power of supercomputers, he is able to combine decades of field observations with mathematical models to forecast how forests will grow in the future.
He’s also leading a team of researchers who will be creating a new Ecological Forecasting Initiative Research Coordination Network, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which will bring together scientists, government officials, and stakeholders working on environmental issues.
“The end goal is to think about ecological forecasting like weather forecasting. It’s a tool used in decision-making and we want people to be able to rely on it,” said Thomas, a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and a Global Change Center affiliate. "Unlike a long-range climate change model, ecological forecasting models are deliberately built on shorter time scales — daily to decadal, for instance — to help people understand changes and act now."