UGA Professors Win NASA Grant: Students Will Use Spatial Analysis to Study Effects of Climate Change on Birds

By Sandi Martin, Public Relations Coordinator, University of Georgia

University of Georgia professors in two schools have received a $447,000 grant from NASA that will offer undergraduate students a year-long combination of classroom and field classes studying the effects of climate change on birds.

NASA’s three-year global climate change education teaching and research grant funds instruction activities that are scheduled to begin with fall 2010 classes. The grant will fund fall, spring and summer courses that will teach students about global climate change models, research methods and designing field experiments. The final course in the lecture and lab series—to be held during summer classes—will have students perform their experiments in the field. That field experience will make students more competitive for graduate schools and jobs, said Jeffrey Hepinstall-Cymerman, an assistant professor of landscape ecology in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Hepinstall-Cymerman said the students will use NASA data, models, spatial analysis, statistics and field methods while studying the effects of climate change on birds and bird migration.

“This training offers a unique opportunity for students to obtain an understanding of the complexities and challenges involved in predicting floral and faunal responses to a changing climate, in addition to exposing them to important field and analytical methods at the cutting edge of applied ecology,” he said.

Hepinstall-Cymerman and two other professors in the Warnell School, Robert Cooper and Michael Conroy, are lead investigators on the grant, which also includes Marshall Shepherd, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. As part of the grant, the team will install ground sensors at Whitehall Forest, a research forest located off campus and managed by Warnell, and at the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research station to allow students to compare ground measurements with measurements made with NASA satellites. This will allow students to see how the satellite images covering large areas compare to detailed information gathered on the ground, Conroy explained. “This is an excellent example of how you use that technology to teach,” he said.

The effect of climate change on birds is sometimes overlooked when the controversial subject is debated, but Conroy notes that if springs continue to get warmer, then it affects when the primary food source for birds—insects—emerge. If birds don’t adjust to that change, he said, newly-hatched birds won’t have enough food.

Global climate models are key tools for studying aspects of climate change. Shepherd, through funding from a Northeast Georgia PRISM (Partnership for Reform in Science and Mathematics) grant, implemented a fully functional educational global climate model called EdGCM into weather-climate exercises in the department of geography. “I was familiar with the NASA-funded EdGCM model from my previous tenure at NASA and felt that it was the ideal platform for integrating climate modeling in an accessible manner for today’s ‘digital native’ students,” said Shepherd. He will assist with implementation of EdGCM into the project’s instructional activities and provide climate science expertise.

Although the NASA grant primarily funds instruction activities, the summer undergraduate research will offer undergraduate students the type of field research experience generally found only at the graduate level and will tie in with work Cooper is doing on breeding bird productivity along an elevational gradient at Coweeta. “The mountainside is a surrogate for climate change,” said Cooper, “and leafout and insect emergence will be later at higher elevations. Migrating birds that arrive in the spring to breed may be right on time to hit peak insect numbers at higher elevations, but not at lower sites, a phenomenon that is likely to be even more extreme with increasing global temperatures.”

[Source: University of Georgia press release]

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