Grant funds harvest of data to examine climate change impacts


The National Science Foundation has awarded Northern Arizona University $370,000 to support the development of applications and software to gather and analyze large amounts of data created by the Southwest Experimental Garden Array, a genetics-based climate change research facility.

The research team will develop applications to send data such as soil moisture and temperature from SEGA’s 12 remote experimental gardens to the NAU campus, where the information can be integrated with genetics data of plant populations that respond differently to climate change.

Software also will be created to manage and analyze the large datasets—commonly known as “big data”—that will result from SEGA experiments. Such work is the focus of informatics, an emerging field that applies computer science to the challenge of sifting through massive amounts of information.

“The ability to gather and analyze the vast amount of data that will result from SEGA is the basis for a new wave of understanding about the response of individual plant species, genes and communities to climate change,” said Thomas Whitham, executive director of NAU’s Merriam-Powell Center and the project’s principal investigator. “This understanding will allow us to identify superior genetic lines and populations that can best cope with climate change and other related challenges.”

SEGA was initiated in 2012 with a $4 million grant from the NSF to create a system of gardens along the elevation gradient of northern Arizona. Because moisture and precipitation change predictably with elevation, these gardens reflect climatic differences from desert to alpine forests that mimic the effects of climate change.

“NAU recognizes the rapidly growing needs of researchers to incorporate informatics approaches into research projects that assemble vast amounts of data, often across multiple disciplines,” said William Grabe, NAU vice president for Research. “This award considerably strengthens the environmental informatics work now being carried out.”

Co-principal investigators include Paul Flikkema, Electrical and Computer Engineering; George Koch, Department of Biological Sciences; Amy Whipple, Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research; and Sam Cushman, USDA Forest Service.