Ohio State leads new global climate center on AI for biodiversity change, funded by NSF

Posted: September 18, 2023
Tanya Berger-Wolf with tech

The Ohio State University will lead a new multimillion dollar international center devoted to using artificial intelligence to help understand climate impacts on biodiversity.

The AI and Biodiversity Change (ABC) Global Climate Center will bring together ecologists and computer scientists from six universities in the United States and Canada, with partners in UK, Europe, and Australia, to develop new AI-enabled, data-supported approaches to study how changes in climate are impacting life – including animals, plants and insects – on Earth.

The National Science Foundation awarded $5 million to researchers at Ohio State as the lead institution, as well as the University of Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About $3.75 million was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to researchers at McGill University, the University of Guelph and the University of British Columbia.

The team also includes core partners in the UK from University of Bristol and the University of Edinburgh; the University of Monash in Australia; EPFL in Switzerland; and WILDLABS.

The principal investigators of the center at Ohio State are Tanya Berger-Wolf, faculty director of the Translational Data Analytics Institute (TDAI), and Marta Jarzyna, assistant professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology (EEOB) and a core faculty member of TDAI.

“Climate change is affecting every aspect of life on Earth,” said Berger-Wolf, who is also a professor of computer science and engineering, EEOB, and electrical and computer engineering.

“The problem is that we have this huge data problem: We don’t have enough data about the impacts of climate on many species, and the data we do have is messy and not aligned. And that is where AI can come to the rescue.”

Researchers in the project will conduct fundamental AI research and develop and use new AI-based methods and tools to analyze data from camera traps, sound recorders, images from satellites and low-flying aircraft, DNA sequences and citizen science efforts. They will develop new and extend existing ecological models to leverage that data and AI approaches.

“This will enable us to monitor, analyze, assess, and understand biodiversity changes around the world,” Berger-Wolf said.

One example: Researchers will develop new AI-informed ecological models to detect and understand how and why species are moving their ranges north across the border from the United States to Canada as the climate warms, potentially serving as an early warning system.

They will study 222 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles that currently breed within 800 km (about 500 miles) of the border. They will use AI analysis of satellite images and extend ecological models to determine how habitat changes might influence northward movement of species.

Acoustic sensors, camera traps and DNA barcodes – which can identify species – will help document the species’ move north.

And AI-enabled identification of photos from partner citizen science initiatives such as iNaturalist, eBird, eButterfly and Bumble Bee Watch will also show the progression of species as they approach Canada.

The findings should be able to provide early warning when various species are likely to move beyond their current ranges and into new areas in Canada not previously recorded.

“The goal is to help develop the understanding of the mechanisms of negative impacts on biodiversity due to climate change so that we may develop interventions to mitigate them,” Berger-Wolf said.

In addition to the researchers from the six universities, the project includes more than 50 partners in the United Kingdom, Australia, Africa, India, Central America and the European Union.  These partners are not just in academia, but also in governments, non-governmental organizations and industry.

The partners will provide research collaboration networks, field data collections, data curation and hosting, community building, access to computational resources, tech transfer and open source tool development, and education and capacity building.

Engaging broader communities beyond academia is an integral aspect of the center, Berger-Wolf said.

“Education, outreach training and community engagement are an important part of what we will do,” she said.

Citizen science will have an important role: Members of the public will contribute to the center’s work when they submit their photos and sightings to apps like eBird and iNaturalist, Berger-Wolf said.

The ABC Global Climate Center is part of the NSF-led Global Centers program, an effort implemented with international funders “to encourage and support large-scale collaborative research on use-inspired themes in climate change and clean energy.”

Ohio State is the ideal institution to lead the ABC Global Climate Center, Berger-Wolf said, due to the concentration of researchers working on related topics who have made the university a leader in those relevant areas.

For example, in 2021 Ohio State was awarded $15 million from NSF to create the Imageomics Institute, which is developing a new field of study in which scientists use images of organisms as the basis of understanding biological processes of life on Earth.

“AI for biodiversity is a growing field of distinction for Ohio State,” she said.

“We have a wide range of expertise in AI, natural resources, ecology and climate that very few institutions can match.”

by Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State News