ASU Regents' Professor mines big data to monitor environment

By

Marshall Terrill

Janet Franklin isn’t the sort of person who likes to raise alarms, but when she talks about the environment, people should take notice.

She says humans are wreaking havoc on Mother Earth, and her perspective carries the weight of big data as she monitors the dynamics of Earth’s changing climate and surface.

“In a decade we had gone from having to rely on the predictions of models about climate change to having amassed heaps and heaps of observational evidence of climate change attributable to human-generated greenhouse gasses from use of fossil fuels and other activities,” said Franklin, an ASU professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and one of four Regents’ Professors for the 2014-2015 academic year.

“Rapidly melting mountain glaciers was the stunning one — this was even before the more recent dramatic losses of Arctic sea ice. I made a conscious decision to address climate-change impacts on ecosystems in my research and have done so ever since.”

The research started when she was 12. That’s when she attended a lecture by Linus Pauling at Stanford University with her father, who was a San Francisco-area physician. Pauling spoke about his Nobel Prize-winning research on sickle cell anemia.

“I was so excited about what he (Pauling) described, although I barely understood it,” Franklin said. “I decided I wanted to be a molecular biologist and solve life puzzle sciences.”

Franklin has been solving those puzzles ever since. Her research bridges the academic disciplines of geography and biology by using various kinds of satellite imagery, remote sensing and climate and topographic data.

“Everyone talks about big data these days, but they mean millions of tweets or stock-market transactions,” Franklin said. “I have always enjoyed the technical challenges of working with these big geospatial data sets to monitor the dynamics of the Earth’s surface.”

What she is finding isn’t exactly the kind of data that is encouraging or uplifting. However, it’s a message that needs to be taken seriously.

“Climate change is occurring with a speed that is virtually unprecedented in Earth’s history, but land-use change — deforestation, urbanization, conversion of prairies to crops and rangeland — over the past 10,000 years and especially 500 years has an even more immediate and profound effect on natural systems everywhere,” Franklin said. “Only by considering these global change factors together can we make evidence-based projections or recommendations of resource conservation and land management strategies.”

Franklin’s latest research project takes her to two sites in northern California — the Sierra National Forest and the Tehachapi Mountains — where she is studying refuge areas for plants and tall trees during the state’s most severe drought in recorded history.

As for Franklin’s career, it is anything but dry. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 for her pioneering work employing geospatial data and spatial analytical tools to examine the evolving biodiversity of ecosystems over time, as they relate to the physical environment, ecological processes and human influences. In June, she was named Regents Professor, an honor that has left her “flattered, honored, surprised and humbled.”

“This has been a big year,” Franklin said. “I’m the kind of scientist who has been quietly doing my work for three decades. I never expected this kind of recognition. It feels pretty nice.”