Mapping thermal stress


We were awarded an NSF grant to develop computational and visualization tools for translating climate change into ecological impacts. The tools will answer the question: what impact will a given (for example, 2MESA°C) climate warming have on organisms and ecological communities? They will enhance student and public understanding of the biological consequences of climate change and improve the capacity of researchers and managers to predict these biological consequences. The project will develop and disseminate an interactive web application, Mapping Environmental Stress on Animals (MESA), for visualizing the predicted body temperatures of insects and areas of thermal stress; the incidence of extreme thermal stress events; indicators of development rate, and population growth rate for our focal butterfly and grasshopper species. The core of MESA will be a biophysical model that budgets heat exchange between insects and the environment. This will address the current inaccessibility of biophysical models, which leads most analyses to approximate body temperatures as air temperatures despite numerous demonstrations that this assumption can lead to incorrect conclusions. The predictions will be visualized in a mapping interface along with photos and vignettes of observed climate impacts on insects such as shifts in phenology. Users will chose to explore focal grasshopper and butterfly species or choose the size, shape, and coloration of a generic ectotherm to model. MESA will offer historic and real-time estimates and predictions for future climate change scenarios. MESA will be prototyped for Colorado and subsequently extended in scope to North America. This will involve developing high spatial and temporal resolution environmental data for both current and future climates to appropriately quantify how organisms respond to both environmental means and variability. We will test MESA using historical abundance and distribution data on focal butterfly and grasshopper species. 

The project will develop educational and outreach activities so that students and the public can use the web application to understand how a given amount of warming translates into thermal stress on organisms. The project will develop a variety of inquiry-based, hands-on education resources to provide high school and undergraduate students with experience visualizing and interpreting thermal stress. Project personnel will partner with local education initiatives to develop the education modules and will ultimately contribute the modules to national climate change education initiatives. The modules will follow best practices for broadening participation in science and project personnel will partner with initiatives aimed at recruiting students from underrepresented groups. Students will receive cross training in ecology and computational approaches. The project will broadly disseminate MESA’s visualizations of thermal stress to agency scientists and through public presentations. Interfacing with related initiatives such as a phenology visualization tool will leverage the project’s benefits to predicting and planning for the ecological impacts of climate change. 


An initial research team has been setting up computational infrastructure and prototyping web applications.  We hope to have a webpage up outlining our progress relatively soon.  In the meantime, please get in touch if you’re interested in the project.