Scaling up at the Ecological Society of America conference

This week I am at the annual Ecological Society of America conference. The Ecological Society of America is a professional organization for ecologists, and this year, it is celebrating its 100th anniversary. So this year’s conference is likely to be quite an affair.

Today, I am giving a talk about “scaling up” phenology in pursuit of scientific understanding.

The first slide for my talk "Plants, Canopies, Landscapes: Plant phenology across scales" at the 2015 Ecological Society of America meeting.

The first slide for my talk “Plants, Canopies, Landscapes: Plant phenology across scales” at the 2015 Ecological Society of America meeting.

For thousands of years, humans have recorded information about plants and trees throughout the seasons — typically for agricultural and forestry purposes, but also for things like Japans’ cherry trees blossoming. Historical records and much modern phenology data recording is done quite simply: by making an observation and writing it down.

More recently, we have modern methods that can look at aspects of phenology over larger scales: the PhenoCam network, which looks at landscapes, and satellite imagery, which covers entire regions.

But there are two major challenges to these new methods. First, there are certain seasonal events that satellites cannot see and that we can’t find with automated processing of PhenoCam images. These include flowering and the development of seeds and cones.

The other challenge is that even though we can calculate a measure of “greenness” from both PhenoCam and satellite images, we don’t know for sure they they align with the types of records people collect when they’re looking at plants on the ground. For example, if a person on the ground observes that leaves are first appearing on trees in a forest on a particular day, does the computation of the first day of “green” from PhenoCam or satellite images from that site agree? We don’t yet know.

Season Spotter is helping to address both these challenges. The questions about flowers, seeds, and cones get at the first challenge, while the side-by-side images are helping us tackle the second.

The eventual goal is a method of connecting all these different types of measurements together, so we can understand what happens biologically over the seasons across whole ecosystems, regions, and even countries.

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About Margaret Kosmala

I am an ecologist exploring the complex dynamics of plant and animal systems. I am especially interested in understanding how species communities change over time and how humans impact them.
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