Computer modelling of ecological systems

Ecological modelling can provide information about how natural systems will respond to increasing pressure from development, climate change, and demand for natural resources and ecosystem services.

The Challenge

Natural systems are complex

Natural systems in Australia face increasing pressure from development, climate change and increasing demand for natural resources and ecosystem services. It is very important that we have a good understanding of how natural systems will respond in future to help make the best informed decisions now. This is not an easy task as natural systems are complex and can often have unforeseen outcomes as a result of interacting processes.

In the past ecologists would undertake detailed field work to better understand how these systems works, but this research takes a lot of effort and time and can only explain the current system, not future conditions. Fortunately, there is currently a lot of information from field ecologists, recorded over many decades, which we can use to better understand how natural systems work.

Our Response

Using computer models to improve our knowledge

To predict what Australia’s natural environment will look like in the future, CSIRO scientists have been using computers to build models. A model is a representation of the system, much like a model train set is a scaled down representation of a real train. We can also develop models in a computer.

Once we understand the processes of a natural system (such as a river) we can build a model and then apply new scenarios (such as more or less rainfall) to determine what might change. You already rely on many models in your everyday life. These include weather models to help the Bureau of Meteorology provide seven day weather forecasts, and even your favourite computer game.

Often the most interesting things we learn from models are the outcomes that are not expected. This leads scientists to delve deeper into what caused the response and often we identify important processes we hadn’t previously considered.

CSRIO have developed a range of models to look at the growth of vegetation, carbon cycles, fire and greenhouse gas emissions, threatened species such as Gouldian Finches, and Indigenous ecological knowledge. These models are used to better understand and manage biodiversity and landscapes.

Case study


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