10 Emerging Technologies
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ENVIRONMENT Computer forecasts enhance farm production and species diversity. By Wade Roush
Environmental scientists think of computers as old friends. They've long used them to crunch the data they collect in the field, whether to map the habitats of endangered species or predict the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate. But three trends are pushing information technology from the periphery of environmental studies to its very core, according to the proponents of a new field called environmental informatics, or enviromatics.
First, there's a fresh avalanche of raw data about the environment, a product of networked sensors that monitor ecosystems in real time. Second, there's the rise of Internet standards such as the Extensible Markup Language (XML), which can tie together data stored in varying formats in different locations. The third trend -- the decreasing cost of computing power -- means that researchers can use inexpensive desktop machines to run analyses and simulations that once required supercomputers. Just as the invention of fast gene sequencers a decade ago gave rise to bioinformatics, a new wealth of data about the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land is leading to a wider embrace of sensing, simulation, and mapping tools -- and hopefully to more reliable predictions about the future.
Environmental modeling, of course, is nothing new: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was spurred in part by global climate models that predict average temperature increases of 1 °C to 6 °C over the next century. But such large-scale, long-range climate models don't help with more immediate and local questions -- such as whether the humidity this month in Butler County, PA, means that farmers should apply fungicides early to prevent infections. At Pennsylvania State University's Center for Environmental Informatics, researcher Douglas Miller is pouring data from weather stations throughout the wheat-growing states into a Web-based program that can predict where a devastating wheat fungus infection called fusarium head blight may strike next. Farmers can log into a website, enter their locations and the flowering dates of their crops, and get local maps showing color-coded levels of risk. "We're putting environmental information into people's hands so they can make decisions," says Miller.
Enviromatics is even helping to manage urban growth. In San Diego County, officials compiled a detailed geographical and biological database mapping which vernal pools -- basins that fill with rainwater in the winter and spring -- harbor the most-endangered strains of species such as the San Diego fairy shrimp and therefore deserve the most protection. Science is rarely the main driver of land management or other decisions affecting the natural environment, but enviromatics may make it harder than ever for politicians to skirt the long-term implications of their decisions.