Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LifeMapper...a Window into Nature's Future

Photo Courtesy: LifeMapper.org
Last week I took a break from Tuesday "Tools of the Trade" to talk about citizen science philanthropy and how it can be used to solve scientific AND social problems.  It's still an important topic and I encourage you to take part in the conversation.  But this week I'm back with another "Tools of the Trade" article.

This week I want to look at "LifeMapper", a tool for mapping animal habitats and testing how those habitats may be altered due to global climate change.   Users can tap the database of geographic data for over 900,000 species and 20,000 environmental species models to graphically display where animals have recently been observed, how their habitat may change as the environment changes, and how that environment may change based on various economic development models.  Everything is shown on a large world map highlighting both the existing places each animal has been observed as well as an outline of territory with the same climate and terrain.  For example, a search for coyotes (Canis latrans) shows where they have been observed (orange dots) and areas of similar habitat (red shading).  You can also see similar habitats with different shades of red.

Photo Courtesy: LifeMapper.org and OpenScientist.org
You can also play with the data for species that have already been modeled.  Continuing our example, we can see the new habitat for coyotes caused by climate changes under a standard economic development model:

Photo Courtesy: LifeMapper.org and OpenScientist.org

Finally, we can see it with a sustainable economic development model:

Photo Courtesy:  LifeMapper.org and OpenScientist.org


As you can see this data can be a very useful tool for citizen scientists and even high school students looking for an easy tool for understanding climate change.  But it can also be a very high-end tool for more advanced studies.  The site allows researchers to set all the parameters for their own climate change experiments and witness the impacst as shown above.  Or they can create their own unique models and run those as well; this can be done both on the site as well as by downloading the full program and data to your own computer for analysis.

This leads into another interesting fact abouet LifeMapper; all the species observation data comes from the Geographic Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and is publicly available to anyone who wishes to use it.  GBIF is a repository for data from governments and museums representing over 50 countries that have pooled their collections data in this one central facility.  It also includes data from many museum-sponsored bio-observation projects.  In other words, the citizen science projects you've been reading about on this very website!  So now that you've worked on all these projects and diligently added your data to the collection, it's finally time to use it.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the LifeMapper web site to learn more about the project and find any recent updates.
  • Click on the Species link to bring up the main web interface and display map.  This will look very similar to the example images shown above.
  • Directly above the map is the "Species Name" field.  Just type the first three letters (minimum) of the species name and a full list of every species with available data will appear.  Pick the species and/or subspecies you wish to analyze.  Don't know the name of an individual species?  Check out the citizen-science run Encyclopedia of Life for your answer.
  • Once selected, a world map will appear with all the observation data for your selected species.  Use the interface tools to zoom in/out, or move around the globe (I don't recommend scrolling since the system was a bit glitchy when I tried it, but the built-in interface worked perfectly).
  • Right below the map will be any existing climate models that have already been run for this particular species.  Just click the radio button (small circle to the left) for each model you are interested in and a new map will automatically pop up.
  • Keep clicking back and forth between the climate models for a good sense of the differences in each.  That's all there is to it!
Once you've mastered the basics there is still a world of exploring you can do with the LifeMapper program.  We'll be discussing those in a future blog post but for now let's start with the basics to get the hang of it.  It's such a simple, easy way to see how we humans are impacting the Earth, as well as how we can help improve life under certain conditions.  So take heart, and start playing with the data!

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