Since the 19th century, scientists have brought voucher specimens back from the field. Most now sit in research institutions around the world “dried, mounted, pickled, preserved, frozen, and stuffed,” according to the creators of Lifemapper, an online species-distribution tool.
Most specimens in natural history museums come with a label describing, among other things, where in the world it was collected. But where might these species migrate in the future in order to survive extreme weather, shifting seasons, invasive species, rising oceans, and other threats linked to rapid climate change?
“Climate change is the most pressing problem of the 21st century, and Lifemapper provides tools to explore how climate change can impact individual species ranges as well as the species composition of communities,” says James Beach, assistant director for informatics with the Biodiversity Institute at University of Kansas.
“Since human life and quality of life is dependent on the functions and services of ecosystems and natural communities, seeing how thousands and tens of thousands of species are being impacted by changing climate should be of interest to anyone interested in future generations’ quality of life on planet Earth…”
To generate predictions, Lifemapper performs “species distribution modeling” based on records of where organisms have been spotted and collected, along with environmental layers such as elevation, precipitation, and temperature.
Then Lifemapper determines the preferred conditions for a species—and where those conditions are most likely to be found in the future under various climate settings.
“Lifemapper has an agreement with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to use the species data they aggregate from natural history museums and collections worldwide,” says Aimee Stewart, who serves as lead software engineer on the project.
“Lifemapper uses elevation and current climate data calculated from observation stations by the Worldclim project for modeling GBIF species data. For projected future climate scenarios, we use climate data predicted for the International Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports.”
Shared computing power
In development since the early 2000s, Lifemapper today can help individual researchers anywhere in the world who lack the computing power needed to estimate the future distribution of plants and animals.
“The time and computational resources needed to perform calculations on hundreds or thousands of species can be prohibitive for an individual researcher on even a powerful desktop computer,” Stewart says.
“Researchers can submit their own species and environmental data with the Lifemapper plugin to the GIS package QGIS for single or multi-species analyses with online Lifemapper tools.
“Lifemapper distributes these requests to one or more high performance computing environments running Lifemapper software…where a divide-and-conquer approach allows computations to complete far more quickly than is possible on a single machine.”
The Lifemapper team hopes to further refine its ability to predict shifting habitats to supply scientists and conservationists with the best data to protect species around the world.
The National Science Foundation and NASA have provided most of the support for Lifemapper.
Source: University of Kansas