by Joe O’Connell

An inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has received a four-​​year, $1.2 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to develop new methods for marine ecol­o­gists to study how marine organ­isms respond to cli­mate extremes.

The researchers will specif­i­cally examine organ­isms in the Gulf of Maine, with the goal of devel­oping novel non­linear models that can more accu­rately pre­dict the ecosystem-​​level effects of cli­mate change. They hope this work will be a cat­a­lyst for fur­ther sci­en­tific study of and advance­ments in marine sustainability.

The team com­prises prin­cipal inves­ti­gator Jen­nifer Dy, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering; Adam Ding, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Math­e­matics; Tarik Gouhier, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Marine and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences; and Auroop Gan­guly, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering.

“The key to addressing the sci­ence ques­tions is to develop com­pu­ta­tional methods for dis­cov­ering asso­ci­a­tions and pre­dic­tive models from non­linear and non-​​stationary sys­tems, where the depen­dence struc­tures can be com­plex in space and time,” Dy said.

The project will leverage each of its team mem­bers’ exper­tise. Ding has been devel­oping a new non­linear depen­dence mea­sure. “Equi­table non­linear depen­dence mea­sure is a ‘hot’ area, with arti­cles, rebut­tals, and counter-​​rebuttals appearing in top inter­dis­ci­pli­nary jour­nals such as Sci­ence and PNAS,” he said. “We are cau­tiously opti­mistic that the new approach we are working on may have promise.”

The grant is from the NSF’s Cyber-​​Innovation for Sus­tain­ability Sci­ence and Engi­neering, or CyberSEES, pro­gram, which aims to advance inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in which the sci­ence and engi­neering of sus­tain­ability are enabled by new advances in com­puting, and where com­pu­ta­tional inno­va­tion is grounded in real-​​life, domain-​​specific challenges.

The research dove­tails with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired research that addresses global chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in the areas of health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

“The overall focus of CyberSEES is to com­bine math­e­matics and com­puter sci­ence to look at big goals in sus­tain­ability sci­ence,” Gouhier said. “That’s what is so exciting about being part of this team. We are in a very unique posi­tion to address an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary project like this one.”

The project will focus on inter­tidal marine com­mu­ni­ties at 18 loca­tions along the Gulf of Maine. The researchers will study inter­tidal organ­isms because while these organ­isms spend a majority of their life under­water, they are exposed to air tem­per­a­ture during low tide.

“They are going to be sus­cep­tible to increased des­ic­ca­tion stress under cli­mate change,” Gouhier said. “So tem­per­a­ture extremes are going to have a strong impact on their sur­vivor­ship. We focused on tem­per­a­ture because it is the most well-​​understood, well-​​quantified envi­ron­mental vari­able that will be changing in the near– to long-​​term future, and its impact on the orga­ni­za­tion of inter­tidal com­mu­ni­ties is already well established.”

This grant builds upon Gouhier and Ganguly’s work through a North­eastern Tier 1 grant last year on how cli­mate change would affect marine ecosys­tems. Tier 1 is Northeastern’s internal grant pro­gram that sup­ports inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research. A former research asso­ciate in Ganguly’s SDS Lab, Deba­sish Das, devel­oped a method with Dy and Gan­guly for improving pro­jec­tions of cli­mate extremes at high res­o­lu­tions. This work, funded by an ongoing NSF Expe­di­tions in Com­puting grant, pro­vided an impor­tant piece of the puzzle.

Gan­guly, who studies cli­mate extremes, water sus­tain­ability, crit­ical infra­struc­tures resilience, and the supply chain, is excited about the poten­tial gen­eral applic­a­bility of the methods as well as the impli­ca­tions for cli­mate science.

“A key knowl­edge gap in cli­mate sci­ence is our inability to pro­vide cred­ible pro­jec­tions at high enough res­o­lu­tions,” he said. “The new methods pro­posed here may pro­vide a way for­ward, and per­haps even lead to new under­standing and hypoth­esis generation.”

photo courtesy Kylla Benes

Originally published in news@Northeastern on September 16, 2014.