Global Biodiversity and Climate Change Visualization
Jon Bergengren, PhD



Science is the art and craft of transforming the unknown into the known within the collective human mind. It is usually intrinsically conservative in its approach to new ideas, new explanations for observed phenomena. Once imagined, tested and "proven", new hypotheses clarify our vision and empower us in our interactions with the world. Each discovered natural principle becomes a stepping stone to more principles within the scientific paradigm that supports it.

Often, the scientific journey toward more fully illuminating the natural world begins with:

  1. observational data, which supports
  2. scientific modeling, both of which can be transformed into
  3. scientific visualizations that literally allow us to see what was previously mostly invisible.

We must be able to clearly see the state of the world. It is vital that we reinvigorate NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth that is currently providing critical planetary monitoring via remote sensing satellites, greatly enhancing our ability to monitor our impacts upon the Earth, both global and regional.

The Biodiversity and Climate Project is dedicated to being a leader in interdisciplinary Earth system research, while providing scientific tools designed to accelerate our species' progress in addressing our ecological challenges. We will continue to develop and leverage our expertise in data management, computer modeling and visualization while creating a nexus for biodiversity and climate data and science.

Observational Data

Good science always begins with good observations of the natural world. Data provides a window into the past and the present.

Even Albert Einstein's famous use of his imagination to create special and general relativity was founded upon our observations of the Universe. Observations generate data which constructively constrain how we think about Nature.

Today, the flow of data and information has grown into an overwhelming flood, awaiting interpretation and integration into our knowledge base. One of the most powerful ways to see what the data are revealing about the state of the world is to create scientific visualizations.

Monitoring and Documenting Biodiversity and Climate

Every endeavor has to start somewhere. Visualizing global change begins with documenting the current state of the Earth system.

Between NASA's suite of Earth observing satellites and the global network of Earth system scientists, there are mountains of data describing the the state of the world. We will identify key data streams and investigators and create a rapidly growing global change database. Our initial focus will be on endangered plants and animals, landscape connectivity, and simple climate descriptors. As our summary of Earth system changes evolves, we will have increasing abilities to explore interconnections between ecological and climatic trends.

Key to optimizing our data infrastructure is choosing the best approaches and formats for storing and sharing data. Existing data formats reflect the nature of recording site data in contrast with gridded modeling. Geographically, site-specific data collection creates point data, while climate and ecological modeling generate multidimensional gridded data. The former is essentially vector data, while the latter is raster data. Even after four decades, existing geospatial database management systems are mostly vector-based, designed to record and map "features" such as continental outlines, storing data in tables analogous to spreadsheets. Earth system modeling has evolved in parallel, storing data in multidimensional arrays contained in files of various formats. Our current site-specific (vector) animal data are stored in spreadsheets, while for our current modeled (raster) climate and vegetation data we have chosen UCAR / Unidata's NetCDF, a format and a robust suite of associated tools that are specifically designed to handle global gridded Earth system data.

Current Climate Data

The modern world is covered by a network of weather stations that record, at the very least, daily values of temperature and precipitation. The easiest way to transform weather station data into geographic visualizations is to first interpolate the station data to a regular grid. This is a challenging endeavor, as the irregular topography and characteristics of the Earth's surface influence vertical and horizontal air circulation creating nonlinear impacts on local weather patterns. There is no perfect approach to creating gridded climate from weather station data. The two currently prevalent high resolution gridded data sources are the WorldClim 30-arcsecond and University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) 10-arcminute datasets. There will always be differences between parallel interpolations of the same data. Here is a video comparison of monthly mean temperature and precipitation fields for these two datasets.

Climate Datasets
Comparison Video

For a detailed comparison in full high definition, view the animation above in fullscreen mode. Although the WorldClim dataset is considered to have the more reliable precipitation fields, you can see some digital artifacts, some "ringing" in the monthly maps. This could be due to something like truncating a Fourier series approximation, using too few terms for interpolating the station data. The "data ringing" first appeared in the vegetation results, which led me to create these animations so I could see where it was coming from in the monthly mean climate. Mystery solved. Now, if I could just get the WorldClim folks to correct this, and add a relative humidity field to their climatology . . .


Central to doing science is building models, from simple conceptual models to complex computer models. Refining models enhances predictive power.

Computer simulation models are our best crystal ball for gazing into our planet's past and our probable and possible futures. The mathematical principles that we use to understand Nature can be encoded in a computer program used to simulate natural systems. The physics, chemistry, and fluid dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere are fairly complex. Cloud formation and precipitation are pretty challenging to simulate with a computer program.

Computers are never fast enough for climate modelers. The physics of the conservation equations requires a model timestep of 30 minutes or finer, limiting spatial resolution. The Earth's atmosphere is divided using a three-dimensional grid, consisting of ten or more vertical levels and horizontal divisions along lines of latitude and longitude with a horizontal spatial resolutions of tens of kilometers.

Climate Modeling

Climate modeling has come a long way over the last three decades, We will be using the output from a number of global climate models (GCMs), starting with the Community Earth System Model (CESM1) of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Ecological Modeling

The current state of biodiversity will be put in context by adding the fourth dimension. Connecting the past with the present and the future will reveal the conservation timescales for each of our target endangered species.

Both plants and animals migrate in response to climatic changes. Plants, being rooted in one location, migrate inter-generationally. They disperse seeds or spores in all directions ensuring that some future progeny will germinate in the direction that corresponds with any change in climate. Local extinctions cqn occur if the landscape lacks connectivity in that direction or if the rate of climate change is too fast relative to the potentials of all propagation vectors. Animals are even more challenging to model, as they exhibit more complex behaviors and interactions with their environments. With their quite different challenges, most ecololgical modelers focus mostly on either plants or animals. This is problematic, especially for simulating animal population trajectories, due to their ultimate dependence on primary producers and plant species that have co-evolved in their ecosystems.

Vegetation Modeling

The foundational biota of the world's ecosystems are their constituent plant species — the primary producers that capture the Sun's energy and make it available for all the other living organisms.

For modeling the Earth's natural vegetation, we will use our global Equilibrium Vegetation Ecology model (EVE) that I designed and developed during my decade of research at NCAR. EVE simulates plant community structure in terms of landscape area coverages for any of 110 plant life forms. The EVE model is driven by any standard climatology consisting of monthly mean temperature, precipitation, and relative humidity data. Just as climate modeling is not weather forecasting, EVE's predictions focus on the equilibrium solution, not on the specific transitional pathway of plant communities. Thus, EVE simulates the response of plants to climate change — any timelag in the response represents a state of disequilibrium with associated ecological and physiological stress in the ecosystem and its constituent plant species. Plant migrational responses and transitional stress can both put pressure on associated animal species in the affected ecosystem.

Animal Species Distribution and Population Dynamics Modeling

Because animal behavior is so complex, geographic models that seek to predict animal distribution and abundance are usually statistical models that make correlations with environmental parameters, particularly climate.

Modeling Climate-Plant-Animal Interactions

Effective interdisciplinary science requires building bridges between scientific areas of study and technological tools. We will connect our plant and animal research and expertise, as well as our empirical and modeling efforts.

One of our primary collaborative goals is to explore causal links between climate change and animal population dynamics and extinctions as ifluenced by intermediate changes in plant species. New statistical and simulation models will be developed to connect these three components of global change.

Modeling Paleoclimate and Paleoecology

In order to put the Earth's current state in perspective and enhance our prospects for predicting its future, we must deepen our understanding of our planet's past.

We have experience in paleoclimate and paleoecology modeling using our EVE plant community model coupled to the GENESIS global climate model, both developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. We will explore the possibilities of expanding these endeavors to include climate-plant-animal interactions, to see if predicting past extinctions can enhance our future biodiversity projections.

Modeling Future Earth System Trajectories

We will apply our expertise gained from advances in paleo-modeling and modern simulations toward projecting future biodiversity and climate conditions.

Visualizing Model Results

The initial aim of this project is to transform the results from the best climate and ecology models into maps, animations and movies that visualize current planetary trends. Some early results can be seen on this page of our beta-phase website.


Transforming global change science into visual resources will greatly enhance our prospects for communicating current trends and inspiring effective mitigating actions.

We will focus on visualizing the trajectories of the Earth's biodiversity, natural habitat, and climate change by tramsforming scientific data and computer model projections into:

  • animations
  • interactive maps, and
  • documentary films designed to heighten awareness of accelerating global trends.


Geographic animations add the dimension of time to our visualizations of the conditions of biota, ecosystems and the atmosphere. The data that goes into animations may be collected from the geologic record, satellite remote sensing, or from computer simulation models that are used to look into the past or the future. The animations below are visualizations of model projections provided by the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The videos depict results generated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Earth System Model (CESM1) that couples NCAR's Community Atmosphere Model (CAM5) to other Earth system component models. These animated climate change projections depict simulations of the period 2006-2100 for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 scenario. Anomalies are differences from 1951-1980 monthly means.

The climate and climate change animations below show RCP 8.5 projections of temperature, precipitation, and relative humidity. The animations are best viewed in fullscreen using Safari which can display lossless mp4 video. The video files are fairly large, so your browser may take some time to preload them. This could delay the appearance of the video posters (the front end still images). Sometimes reloading the page can help, especially on mobile devices. Your feedback is appreciated.

Near-Surface Air Temperatures
and Anomalies
and Anomalies
Near-Surface Relative Humidity
and Anomalies

To download a fairly large folder (367 MB) that contains all six of these climate animations, click here:

Interactive Maps

Most of humanity's primary impacts on biodiversity are relatviely invisible, lying just beyond our visual horizon. We will use maps of various degrees and types of interactivity to illustrate the geographic distribution and abundance of plants and animals, natural habitats, and climatic conditions of the past, present and future.

Current Biodiversity
Study Areas
A Green Earth map showing study regions USA-48 Brazil

Global map of current biodiversity study areas.
Click on a region for a look into our findings for that region.

Demonstration Earth map created using OpenLayers 3

    with zoom, brightness, contrast, hue and saturation controls

This Earth map can be dragged and zoomed and its appearance can be customized with the controls — Go ahead and try it out!

Documentary Films

As demonstrated by the success of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, feature films are uniquely effective in raising awareness on environmental issues. We will incorporate our visualizations of human impacts on bidiversity, natural habitat, and climate into a series of movies that tell the story of the natural treasures we are on the brink of losing and outline a path to sustainability.