Risking scientific discovery at new ecological scales
The year 2000 marked a time of hope for moving ecology to broader geographic scales. With the launch of NASA’s new satellite constellation known as the Earth Observing System, our understanding of the global biosphere would be transformed. However, these satellites were designed primarily for climate science, and a very few ecological measurements were to be part of the new constellation. At around the same time, other lesser-known remote sensing studies were underway at smaller geographic scales afforded by airborne observation. Early work hinted at a forthcoming ability to map large swaths of vegetation structure and architecture, chemistry and physiology, and even biological diversity, in ways that directly connect to field and laboratory studies. Yet ecological interpretation at these new airborne observing scales remained unproven. In his legendary style of identifying futures in ecological research, William Robertson sought to bring airborne ecology into the Mellon Foundation’s science program and to the world.
Integrating the newly launched Carnegie Airborne Observatory into Mellon’s program in South Africa, an internationally diverse group of scientists emerged in 2008 with new measurements of African savannas that would challenge the status quo in ecology. The new airborne research revealed previously unknown interactions among species, communities and the environment, at multiple spatial and temporal scales, as well as how humans influence those interactions. From lion hunting behavior to nutrient dynamics, the Mellon Foundation’s airborne ecology emphasis has shed new light on the functioning of savanna ecosystems, and it has helped field and experimental biologists place their findings in a broader context. The approach has spread around the world, from Madagascar to California, and from the Andes to the Amazon basin. In recent years, the science community has undergone a transformation that embeds airborne ecological approaches into the broader biological and ecological science arenas. Today the airborne ecology community continues to expand, with new projects and scientists emerging around the world. They are moving ecological hypothesis testing and exploration from organismic to biome scales using approaches spawned by the vision of William Robertson.