Last week I had the wonderful pleasure of hearing Lauren Buckley of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill give a lecture on her research. As I walked into the auditorium, I took a seat in the center and grabbed my notebook, anticipating some note-taking in my future. I soon found that the audience was mostly EEB majors, graduate students, and biology professors. So I prepared myself for what was to come…
Lauren began her powerpoint, and I kept up as best I could. She lost me with some of the terminology, and the more complex graphs. But by the end of the hour-long lecture, I’d gathered a few things, despite my lack of understanding.
One topic that is central to the research done by climate change scientists all over the world- no matter what organism or pattern they study- is the technique of hindcasting. Scientists develop models for the purpose of forecasting changes in temperature, or population, or any number of ecology related measurements. We, unfortunately, don’t have any data from the future to test these models. Instead, scientists use the same models that predict future changes to hindcast, meaning we take our model, and project it into the past. The exciting news is, we often have data observations for the past! Scientists compare the actual data from the past and the model’s hindcasting. Voila! If the data supports the hindcasting, we have a powerful, accurate model.
Lauren, for example specializes in lizard population dynamics, and how physiological traits can affect demography of a species.
One of the models Lauren uses (which of course is supported by hindcasting) is called a Mechanistic Range Model. Start with a biophysical model of let’s say… air temperature. The air temperature in a specific region may be changing. Lauren and her team then measured the potential body temperatures of their lizards, who vary in physical traits- testing the thermal limits of the organism. Can lizards function when it is __ degrees? By combining the environmental and bodily temperature, scientists can make predictions about the lizard’s activity and foraging time. Lauren and her team concluded that the physical traits which differentiate the lizards can have an affect on the organisms. Thus, the organisms respond differently to climate change. This can affect their population dynamics and demography.
Lauren Buckley, and other scientists, use hindcasting to make their work applicable to the future. Not only can we predict climate change with these models, but we can do something to change the predictions.