Abstract: The biodiversity of our planet faces unprecedented uncertainty in this era of global change. Because ecological communities are proverbially complex, with innumerable species interacting in so many different ways, detecting the impacts and predicting the consequences of those impacts is a grand challenge of our time. Most existing theory in ecology is built around studying the interactions of at most a handful of species at a given time, while large-scale analyses focus on only species occurrences and the environment, or ignore species interactions entirely. To determine signatures of stability, and the extent to which a community might show resilience to change or recovery from impact (modification, fragmentation, invasion, climate change) requires (1) measurement of interactions among all individuals, species, and the environment, (2) how these change over space and time; and (3) metrics that can describe and encapsulate the complex sets of interactions and the dynamics thereof. We propose to develop a novel approach to measuring and understanding change in whole-ecosystem communities by bringing together two emerging areas: ecological network theory and big data ecology, in concert with the growing availability of genomics, remote sensing from satellites to microsensors & drones, and other emerging data sources.
Laurel is an assistant professor of earth systems science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs the Environmental Systems Dynamics Laboratory. Previously, she was a research ecologist and research hydrologist with the USGS in Reston, VA. Laurel’s research uses a variety of tools to identify the feedback processes driving environmental systems at the landscape scale. These tools include field and laboratory work, simulation modeling, and data-driven analysis using increasingly available environmental data from sensor networks and remote sensing platforms. Much of this work focuses on how water interacts with physical (e.g., sediment) and biological (e.g., plants) components of the environment, often in nonlinear ways that lead to thresholds, sudden shifts between alternate stable states, or chaotic behavior. Understanding these type of interactions enables anticipatory planning and improves the efficiency and effectiveness of restoration efforts. Her work has influenced restoration efforts in in the Everglades, with ongoing work focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and the Wax Lake Delta, part of the greater Mississippi River delta complex. Laurel earned her PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder and also trained at Washington University in St. Louis.