Research at Nebraska 2019-2020 Report
From left: Craig Allen, Simanti Banerjee, Dirac Twidwell and Daniel Uden

Protecting Ecosystems with Early Detection

In medicine, disease screening with tests like colonoscopies and mammograms helps detect problems before symptoms emerge – while there is still time to reverse course.

Nebraska’s Dirac Twidwell, associate professor of agronomy and horticulture, is bringing this proactive early-detection approach to agricultural resilience, which focuses on the ability of ecosystems to withstand sudden, destabilizing transitions.

These shifts – from grassland to cedar woodland or fertile farmland to desert, for example – can spark chaos in communities by reducing biodiversity, wildlife habitat and livestock forage. These changes reduce food and water security and increase flood, wildfire and other risks.

Twidwell is collaborating with University of Montana researchers to develop and implement first-of-their-kind screening tools that detect, more precisely and earlier, subtle changes that foreshadow destabilizing ecological transitions.

“The approach is meant to mimic the philosophy of medicine, so we can start to nail down, as early as possible, where we see problematic changes that we know carry a host of severe consequences to ecosystem services and people’s well-being,” said Twidwell.

“We can talk with landowners about what we’re seeing and give them a heads up that they may need to change their management strategies.”

Dirac Twidwell

The team’s tools include maps that highlight changing vegetation patterns across the Western U.S. The maps, developed based on cloud computing, comprehensive vegetation data and resilience theory, enable researchers to identify areas where one vegetation type is displacing another across multiple tracts of land – a telltale sign of forthcoming disruptive change.

“The tools are no different than a patient looking at an X-ray scan or a brain scan,” Twidwell said. “We can talk with landowners about what we’re seeing and give them a heads up that they may need to change their management strategies.”

Montana researchers will use big data approaches and social network analysis to develop an algorithm that identifies individuals likely to use the technology. They’ll also meet with Nebraska and Montana stakeholders to showcase the tools.

Nebraska’s team includes Craig Allen, professor and director of the Center for Resilience in Working Agricultural Landscapes; Simanti Banerjee, associate professor of agricultural economics; and Daniel Uden, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources.

A $4 million National Science Foundation EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Track-2 award funds this project.

+ Additional content for Protecting Ecosystems with Early Detection

Nebraska news release: Early detection of changing ecosystems is aim of Nebraska-led research

Nebraska news release: Early warning: Ecological screening looks to preserve Sandhills, native ecosystems

Media mention: Technological breakthroughs help ranchers track range health (Beef Magazine, 9/17/2020)


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