Developing digital twins to help understand ecosystems

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Developing digital twins to help understand ecosystems


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LTER-LIFE aims to study and predict how global change affects ecosystems. It is one of nine projects that have just won Dutch funding earmarked for setting up and improving large-scale research infrastructure. The main applicant for the proposal was Marcel Visser (NIOO-KNAW).

Large-scale research infrastructure comes in different types and categories. It may involve highly specialised equipment, such as large telescopes, high-field magnets or advanced sensors, and measurement networks necessary for biological and earth science research. But also 'virtual' facilities, such as large databases, scientific computer networks, or data and sample collections. 

According to the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Ministry of Culture, Education and Science, large-scale research infrastructure is essential for Dutch science. They are making available a substantial budget for projects that help to set up or improve this infrastructure. In the first of two funding rounds, a total of 140 million euros has now been allocated to nine individual projects.

Digital twins

Twenty million euros of this money will go to LTER-LIFE, which falls into the 'virtual' category. LTER stands for Long-term Ecosystem Research, an international network of facilities that includes two Dutch locations: De Hoge Veluwe and the Wadden Sea.

LTER-LIFE, says Marcel Visser "will be used to better understand the functioning of ecosystems, but also to make better predictions regarding the impact of human interventions. It's similar to using climate models. We should be able to calculate the impact of various climate scenarios, for instance, on the functioning of ecosystems."

Marcel Visser / NIOO-KNAW
Marcel Visser

The main instrument for this will be a virtual research environment that capitalises on recent developments in data science. "The planet is changing rapidly", stresses Visser. "To understand and forecast how ecosystems are affected by global change, ecology should become a predictive science."

LTER-LIFE will  enable ecologists to link scattered long-term data on plants, animals and the environment, share methods for data analysis, modelling and simulation, and build digital replicas of entire ecosystems. "Just think of these replicas as 'digital twins'", says Visser. "They will transform our ability to understand and predict how ecosystems will respond under different scenarios and mitigation measures."

And there is another important aspect of the project: "We will be making long-term data available that might otherwise be lost. Data from maybe 20, 30 or 40 years ago that would be absolutely irreplacable."

National roadmap

Only consortia associated with the National Roadmap for Large-Scale Research Infrastructure were allowed to submit a proposal.  The Roadmap was launched in 2021 to help the Dutch government make strategic choices for investing in large-scale research infrastructure over the next 10 years.

In addition to the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), the LTER-LIFE consortium comprises the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Supporting the project are a large number of scientific, educational and societal partners.

"f you provide the right infrastructure, parties that would not normally collaborate with each other can be brought together", explains NWO chairman Marcel Levi. "This makes research infrastructure a breeding ground for new developments and a key to innovation and solving major societal issues.''

"Building an infrastructure is one thing", adds Marcel Visser. "But to make sure it is actually used, researchers will need training. So our project also includes training courses and other forms of information sharing, for students and PhDs as well. It's important that the new generation of ecologists steps up its skills when it comes to data management and Big Data."

LTER-LIFE will start on 1 July.