April 05, 2007

Case Western Reserve University's Sobel tithes research time to environmental issues

BioScience article by Weatherhead School of Management professor and an international team of researchers on forecasting global warming impact on biodiversity is one result


Case Western Reserve University faculty member Matthew Sobel has joined a team of international scientists calling for better forecasting methods in predicting how climate changes will impact the earth's plant and animal species. They have reported eight ways to improve biodiversity forecasting in the BioScience article, "Forecasting the Effects of Global Warming on Biodiversity."

Sobel, the William E. Umstattd Professor at the Weatherhead School of Management, began consciously tithing a portion of his research time 40 years ago to critical environmental concerns at time when those issues were not fashionable in most of academia.

In addition to predictions about global changes, the researchers also want better forecasting to unravel "the Quaternary conundrum," which is evidence suggesting that many of the estimated 1.5 million species on earth are in danger of extinction from global warming, yet over the past 2.5 million years little extinction is documented in the fossil record.

"The simultaneous widespread and justified alarm over global warming and changes in biodiversity has induced both outstanding scientific research and deplorable pseudoscientific work," said Sobel.

Sobel raises concerns about the "blurring" of scientific fact with public advocacy and wants public discussions to center around sound environmental facts.

"Where the science has limitations that should be noted, too," added Sobel.

His concern is that misinformation or poorly constructed forecasts may divert and reduce resources that could be better spent in other areas.

Limits of scientific knowledge exist with current forecasting models, according to Sobel, and these need to be acknowledged when reporting global warming.

The concern for accurate information and reporting resulted in the article's lead authors—Daniel Botkin from the University of California at Santa Barbara and Henrik Saxe from the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen—to convene a meeting of scientists from the United States, Spain, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Australia in 2004 in Denmark.

Instead of engaging in "a war of words" to set the record straight where misconceptions exist in the global warming discussion, Sobel said the group reached a consensus to come up with prediction tools that "do it right."

In the BioScience article, the researchers call for eight steps to better forecasting:

  • Select one of the many meanings associated with the complex concept of biodiversity and target that meaning as the parameters in a specific forecast
  • Evaluate and validate forecasting methods before applying them to general forecasts
  • Consider the various factors that might impact biodiversity from climate change to pressures from humans on the native habitat of a species
  • Obtain adequate information before making predictions about future outcomes
  • Examine fossil records to aid in understanding how some plant and animal species have adapted to changes in their environments
  • Improve four widely used techniques in forecasting that model individuals, groups, integration of species and environmental factors and lastly groups or species based on theories
  • Embed ecological principles in the forecasts based on air, water and animal and plant life.
  • Develop better models that improve upon modeling forecasts called species-area curves that are based on specific number of species in relation to their habitat and how climate changes can modify the environment

Sobel's interest in the environment stems from his work with the U. S. Public Health Service in the 1960s when he worked on a project that followed a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to close off the Delaware River when tidal surges from hurricanes threatened the water systems of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Practices developed from that project have since been adopted worldwide.

After earning his doctorate degree from Stanford University, he carried that passion for environment with him to Yale University where as a junior faculty member in the 1960s he launched his teaching and research career.

"I felt from the very beginning that as much as I delighted in improving the efficiencies and effectiveness of operations in business, public agencies and nonprofit organizations, it was not enough for me," said Sobel.

He said he felt not only an obligation to do environmental research but gained "great satisfaction" from doing it.

It was at Yale that environmental discussions with Botkin started and continued during carpool rides to the New Haven campus during the 1973 oil embargo.

When the two researchers set out to improve the environment, the topic was not accepted as a legitimate research area on college campuses.

"The situation has changed dramatically, and it is legitimate in academia now," explained Sobel. It has even threaded its way and is accepted as a focus of study in his research areas of operations research and operations management.

Other contributors to the BioScience article are: Miguel Arujo from the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Spain; Richard Betts, Met Office Hadley Center in Exeter, U.K.; Richard Bradshaw from the University of Liverpool (U.K.); Tomas Cedhagen, Aarhus University, Denmark; Peter Chesson, University of Arizona; Terry Dawson, University of Edinburgh, Scotland; Julie Etterson, University of Minnesota; Daniel Faith, Australian Museum, Australia; Simon Ferrier, New South Wales Department of Environment and Conservation, Australia; Antoine Guisan, University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Chris Margules, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia; David Hilbert, CSIRO Tropical Forest Research Centre, Australia; Craig Loehle, National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Illinois; Mark New, Oxford University, U.K.; and David Stockwell, University of California, Santa Barbara.

For more information contact Susan Griffith, 216.368.1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, April 5, 2007 04:56 PM | News Topics: Environment, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research, Weatherhead School of Management

Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.