Nature’s Prophet: Scientist Runs Numbers to Predict Future of Life
June 22, 2010
There are lots of scientists trying to determine the fate of plant and animal species in the context of global warming. Few command as much processing power as Healy Hamilton, director of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Informatics at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. She got her start number-crunching nature with her PhD thesis, a DNA analysis of river dolphins. It required spending more than a month on the Amazon in 2001, subsisting on fried piranha and collecting tissue samples by nicking the aquatic mammals with a crossbow. (No Flippers were killed.) Tricky enough, but the real challenge began when she tried sequencing the samples on turn-of-the-millennium hardware. “I had a tiny data set running on small computers,” she says. “It would take weeks to analyze the DNA!” Today, Hamilton has 10 terabytes of storage, two 12-CPU servers, and a 136-node computer cluster, which she uses to process data like temperature and precipitation extrapolated from 17 different climate models. So far her team has mapped out how climate change might alter the habitats of a dozen species, from the Canadian lynx to the California redwood. The academy has more than 25 million plant and animal specimens in its collection. Better upgrade that CPU.