From Sea to Trees, Pivotal Data Science Looks at Climate Change in Acadia National Park: Day 1 Field Report

November 18, 2014 Srivatsan Ramanujam

featured-earthwatch-cloudsThis week, data science will shine its magnifying glass on how the Earth’s climate is changing, effecting the world around us. My name is Srivatsan Ramanujam, and I am a Senior Data Scientist with Pivotal. Our parent company, EMC, partnered with Earthwatch to pool a group of employees from different walks of the EMC Federation and brought us together to collect data and study the effect of climate change on phenology in Acadia National Park. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate. Tucked away in the Atlantic coast in Northeastern United States in the state of Maine, Acadia is one of the most popular national parks in the Eastern United States, drawing in about 2.1 million visitors annually. It is also considered the oldest National Park east of Mississippi. The park is one of the first parts of the contiguous US to see sunrise everyday.

Brainstorming New Ways to Use Data Science for Scientific Research

Our environment is changing quite fast—often less predictably than anticipated and much faster than we can adapt. With the climate data lake initiative, we hope to build a knowledge base of these changes that integrates data from a multitude of sources, and use it to build predictive models and visualizations to mitigate the negative impact of climate change and better manage the future. Our goal for the week and beyond is to participate as citizen scientists, brainstorming on ways in which the EMC Federation of companies can assist climate scientists, conservationists, and volunteers in studying the impact of climate change. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a daily blog summarizing our activities in the park. This will include a mix of four things:

  1. Exploring data collection in the field (e.g., bird migrations, counting barnacles, etc.)
  2. Understanding the limitation of the current data collection approach and system
  3. Discussing the various data sources that park scientists use
  4. Brainstorming ideas on the requirements of a climate data lake

We plan to develop the concept and scale this program to projects through North America and beyond, engaging more employees from the EMC Federation. There are 10 people in the expedition group, chosen from different units within the EMC Federation and including EMC TV, Sustainability, Professional Services, Marketing, Pivotal Data Labs, and EMC Consulting. Earthwatch and Schoodic Institute have put-together a team of principal investigators, conservationists, and program coordinators to work with us. image01

Highlight of Day One: The Beauty of Nature

The highlight of day one was our trip to Acadia. At 10 am on Monday, five of us took a flight out of Boston’s Logan Airport. We boarded a twin-engined, 10 seater Cessna 402 aircraft which flew for 70 minutes to Bar Harbor Airport in Maine. Although it was cloudy and rainy, we saw breathtaking views of several islands that make up Acadia National Park just before landing. Speaking of climate change, the rains and the not-so-cold weather in Acadia were a welcome break for someone from parched, drought-ridden California where we’ve been experiencing the worst drought in over a century. From Bar Harbor, Hannah, our co-ordinator from Earthwatch, picked us up and drove us to the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. The Schoodic Institute in Acadia is the largest of their 19 facilities in the United States. This week, they have graciously provided apartments within the park, and made arrangements for breakfast, lunch and dinner during our stay. This way, we make best use of our time here to collect, analyze, and brainstorm on climate change and study its effect on the plant and animal species in the park.

Applying Data Science to Phenology

With phenology, scientists look at how climate changes can effect a natural ecosystem. The climate affects seasons, the life cycle of vegetation and food sources, animal migrations, and more, This is the key research focus for Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing and his team at Acadia. Abe gave several examples to explain phenology within the park. For example, there is a negative impact in the population of a certain species of insectivorous (insect eating) birds. For their offspring to survive, there must be adequate availability of caterpillar biomass. In areas affected by climate change, caterpillars are hatching earlier than normal. This has had a significant impact on the weight and the number of bird offspring. Another example is the effect of warming oceans on certain populations of fish whose early migrations have adversely affected the population of puffin chicks in Maine. Due to warmer temperatures, the primary food source for puffin chicks are long gone from the waters off Maine by August. As a result the puffin parents have been attempting to feed their chicks with an alternative food source, butterfish, which the chicks struggle to swallow. This has lead to a serious decline in the number of puffin chicks that have successfully fledged. The flowering of certain species of flowers in Eastern United States has also changed due to climate. The great American poet and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, kept records in the mid 19th century and captured when various species of flowers would first open every spring. While Thoreau’s records indicate that high bush blueberries flowered in mid-May back in his time, now they are seen blooming as early as the first week in April. image00 Team Progress Summary The first day, logically, was spent orienting the team assembled, and laying out the challenge ahead. By the end of the first day, we covered an overview of the goals of this expedition, discussed current limitations in the data collection and analysis approach and infrastructure, and a outlined how a climate data lake could help scientists, educators, volunteers, conservationists, resource managers, and corporations contribute to the study and impact of climate change—one of the important challenges of our generation. Tomorrow, I’ll have more updates from the field about our data collection activities, a look at the different data sources we’ll be working with during our time here, and provide an assessment of the challenges.

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