Facebook Icon Youtube Icon Twitter Icon Flickr Icon Vimeo Icon RSS Icon Itunes Icon Pinterest Icon
Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Search Google Appliance

Computers Match Doctors in Predicting Patient Discharges

October 14, 2015

Sean Barnes 301-405-9679

UMD researchers find computers as accurate as medical professionals in predicting patient discharges 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A computer can do as good a job of predicting how many patients will be discharged from a hospital unit on a given day as doctors and nurses can, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and Johns Hopkins University. In some cases, the computer does even better.

Accurate estimates of patient discharges are an important component of keeping costs down because they allow hospitals to make the most efficient use of resources — namely, hospital beds. In recent years, the push toward sound management of available beds has led to the introduction of morning "huddles" during which clinicians make their best estimates about which patients will be ready to leave at some point that day. The new study shows that computers can potentially replace, or at least supplement —thereby improving — the morning huddle.

Sean Barnes, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of operations management at the Smith School.Like doctors, the model used information available at 7:00 a.m. If the model continues to improve and gets adopted, says Sean Barnes, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of operations management at the Smith School. "Then we can minimize the time the clinicians spend thinking about operations and maximize the time they spend thinking about the treatment of patients."

One notable feature of the model is how few variables it uses: fewer than 30. They include such factors as how long a patient had been in the hospital, whether his or her status was "observational" (as opposed to formally admitted), and the day of the week. Also included were a patient's age, race, and gender and whether he or she displayed certain symptoms (chest pain, abdominal pain) or suffered from certain chronic conditions (congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Doctors, nurses, and other caregivers, in contrast, had full access to the patients' charts and recent medical orders — and of course could draw on professional lifetimes of medical expertise. "We think it's pretty neat that we can use less information and make predictions on par with what the clinicians are doing," Barnes said.

"This model would be easy to reproduce, because all the information we used is readily available in any hospital information system," Barnes says.

The researchers looked at one general medical unit in a mid-Atlantic hospital, monitoring some 8,000 patient stays over a 34-month period stretching from January 2011 into December 2013. Patients could be discharged at any time during the day; the model generated predictions both for 2 p.m. and the end of the day.

Discharges at 2:00 p.m. were difficult for both the model (the paper describes two variations) and the clinicians to predict, but the model performed somewhat better. Overall, the model tended to be more aggressive than doctors in predicting whether a given patient would leave. But on what may be the most important measure, number of patients discharged at the end of the day, the model beat the doctors. It was also more accurate in ranking patients by readiness to depart.

To be clear, the model played no role in determining when patients would go; it didn't nudge them out the door: Rather, it predicted the decisions that doctors themselves would make.

At first, the researchers considered including many more variables, including medical orders (as when a patient is restored a standard diet after a restricted one, for example). But those orders didn't add much more predictive power and in some cases took a lot of time to collect and "code," so for this paper the authors omitted them.

The model's simplicity is part of its elegance. Still, Barnes said, it should be considered more of a "proof of concept" than a final, finished product, and the researchers will work on improving its accuracy. Using the model can help to focus attention on a certain kind of patient: Those on the cusp of leaving, or close to that threshold. Moreover, prediction can spur action: Identifying such patients might ensure that they receive the final tests or conversations that they need, before discharge.

While the study examined Medicare status as well as demographic variables including race, and gender, it did not uncover any patterns suggesting that poorer or non-white patients were nudged out of hospitals prematurely. In contrast, a 2012 study by Smith School researchers found that hospitals tended to discharge some surgical patients too quickly when they were crowded. That led to the re-admission of those patients, for expensive further treatment.

"Real-Time Prediction of Inpatient Length of Stay for Discharge Prioritization," by Sean Barnes, Eric Hamrock (Johns Hopkins), Matthew Toerper (Johns Hopkins), Sauleh Siddiqui (Johns Hopkins) and Scott Levin (Johns Hopkins), has been published online in advance of print in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.


UMD Quantum Information Workshop Draws Experts From Around the World

October 13, 2015

Tom Ventsias 301-405-5933

Five-day workshop examined new research, including how quantum computing could shed light on the nature of black holes & other frontiers 

QuICS Hartree Postdoctoral Fellow Shelby Kimmel (right) discusses her research. COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A five-day workshop examining the frontiers of quantum information recently drew more than 140 quantum experts from around the world to the University of Maryland.

Hosted by the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS), the Sept. 28 to Oct. 2 workshop featured presentations from established leaders in the quantum community as well as younger members discussing promising new research.

Attendees from across the U.S., Europe and Australia explored topics that included quantum algorithms, quantum complexity theory, quantum tomography, quantum information theory, and applications of quantum information to condensed matter physics.

Andrew Childs, co-director of QuICS and an associate professor in UMD’s computer science department, says the workshop not only allowed attendees to learn about the latest advances in the field, but encouraged them to explore completely new ideas down the road.

“We wanted the workshop to lead to further collaboration, and to get people to think about advances in quantum computing and quantum information science in ways they otherwise might not have,” he says. “It was also about introducing people to QuICS and the work we do here. I think we were very successful on both counts.”

Graduate students and postdocs in QuICS showcase their work at a poster session.

In one presentation, Scott Aaronson of MIT discussed how insights from quantum computing could shed light on the nature of black holes. A longstanding puzzle in theoretical physics asks whether black holes can destroy information. Aaronson described how work by himself and others uses the difficulty of performing certain computations to point toward a resolution of this puzzle.

Other presentations included an update from QuICS Fellow Christopher Monroe on progress toward building a large-scale quantum computer. Monroe summarized methods for engineering quantum processors using superconducting devices and trapped ions, and emphasized the importance of collaboration between researchers working on theory and practice. 

QuICS is a partnership between the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The center launched in October 2014, and currently has a vibrant community of fellows, postdocs, graduate students and visitors housed in a newly renovated workspace that encourages collaboration and innovation.

Researchers in quantum information science can often reside in different departments in academia—physics, computer science or mathematics, for example—which can lead to the impression of a fragmented research community, says Jacob Taylor, co-director of QuICS and a scientist at NIST.

MIT quantum expert Seth Lloyd speaks to a full house at the frontiers of quantum information workshop at the University of Maryland. “One intent of putting on these types of workshops is to gather together a community of quantum researchers on a regular basis, and then build a robust community around that research,” he says. “The main hope and goal is to outline what we as the community see as the real frontiers. And then identify what the hardest challenges are, and where the biggest effort now will make the biggest difference.”

Stephen Jordan, a QuICS Fellow and physicist at NIST who organized the academic component of the workshop, says that he and other attendees knew they were in the right place during one of the early presentations.

“A speaker was discussing a recent academic paper he had submitted, and was able to point to the audience and identify three other quantum experts he had cited in his own paper,” Jordan says. “That really speaks to the breadth and depth of scientific talent in attendance.” 

The Washington Post – University of Maryland Poll Reveals Marylanders' Views on Democratic Presidential Contenders

October 12, 2015

Laura Ours 301-405-5722

Former Gov. O’Malley failing to secure Marylanders’ support, poll indicates

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’MalleyCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – Heading into Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Maryland voters indicate low levels of support for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. This information comes from the latest iteration of The Washington Post-University of Maryland Poll. 

When asked to choose from a list of possible candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, only 4 percent of self-identified “leaned Democrat” respondents said they would vote for O’Malley if the primary in Maryland were held today. Read The Washington Post story.

“The new results show that Martin O’Malley is not getting any special consideration from his home state. His low levels of support magnify the importance of the first Democratic debate on Tuesday night,” said Peyton Craighill, polling manager for The Washington Post.

Hillary Clinton was the top choice, with 44 percent of respondents saying they would vote for her; Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders followed with 24 percent and 20 percent of participants indicating support, respectively. Jim Webb was supported by 1 percent of respondents.

“Maryland Democrats seem to be positioned similarly to other Democrats across the country in their choice for president—despite having someone from the state in the race. This demonstrates that the battle for the Democratic nomination is still Clinton’s to lose, and that other candidates will have to maximize the opportunity of the debates to make any appreciable inroads into her lead,” said Associate Professor of Government and Politics Stella Rouse, director for UMD’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship (CAPC).

Additional Topics

Results from other topics covered in the poll—including Marylanders’ views on Gov. Hogan’s job performance, a state law mandating employers to provide paid sick leave, and race relations in the state—will be released in the coming weeks.

Former members of Congress and members of the Maryland legislature will participate in a special event in November at the University of Maryland to further discuss the poll and results related to campaign finance. 

About the Poll

This third iteration of The Washington Post-University of Maryland poll was conducted by telephone October 8-11, 2015, among a random sample of 1,006 adult residents of Maryland. Interviews were conducted by live interviewers on both conventional and cellular phones. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.66 percentage points. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were conducted by Abt-SRBI, Inc. of New York, NY.

The University of Maryland and The Washington Post first teamed up to present the poll in October 2014, focusing on issues related to the Maryland gubernatorial race, and related issues including immigration, taxes, education, gay marriage and healthcare. The second iteration of the poll in February shed light on what Marylanders thought Gov. Larry Hogan and his administration should prioritize considering tax and expenditure issues—namely, education. 

The partnership combines the world-class reporting, polling and public engagement resources of The Post with rigorous academic analysis from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences’ nationally-renowned Department of Government and Politics. The poll is designed to provide academics, students and members of the public with insight into both key races and the issues that matter to Maryland voters.

In addition to its impact as a public education tool, the poll also represents a unique research opportunity for UMD students. Rouse and Associate Professor of Government and Politics Michael Hanmer, research director of CAPC, work with students affiliated with the Center on the design of the poll questions and the analysis of its responses.

The poll is directed by Craighill and Scott Clement, a polling survey research analyst, for The Post, as well as Hanmer for the University of Maryland.

UMD's Art-Sociology Building to be Named After Late Congressman Parren Mitchell

October 9, 2015

Crystal Brown 301-405-4618

The first African American to obtain a graduate degree at UMD to be honored,
according to Board of Regents vote today

COLLEGE PARK, MD— The University of Maryland today announced that the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland (USM) has unanimously approved the naming of the Art-Sociology Building after the late Congressman Parren Mitchell. 

In 1952, Mitchell became the first African American to obtain a graduate degree from the University of Maryland, a pioneering achievement as the leadership of the University sought to exclude him from attending classes on account of his race. Mitchell successfully sued the University, with legal representation undertaken by NAACP Lead Counsel Thurgood Marshall, to attend the College Park campus.

University leadership agrees that celebrating the memory of Parren Mitchell allows us to recognize the difficulties our nation has faced in overcoming racial and social inequalities, as well as the challenges we still face to overcome less-visible barriers to graduate education for racial minorities.  

“Parren Mitchell stands as an exemplar of the values this campus holds most highly—academic achievement, personal courage, diversity and the opportunity to rise on one’s merits,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh.  “His legacy reminds us where we came from and how far we can go.”

In his youth, Parren joined his brother Clarence Mitchell Jr. – who went on to become Chief Lobbyist of the NAACP - in protesting against segregation in the city of Baltimore. In 1942, Parren Mitchell served in the Ninety-Second Infantry Division of the US Army as a commissioned officer and company commander during World War II and received a Purple Heart. After his discharge in 1946, he attended Morgan State University under the GI Bill, and he received a Bachelor’s Degree in 1950. He then applied to the graduate program in sociology at the University of Maryland.

In October 1950, the Baltimore City Court ordered UMD to accept Mitchell as a full-time student in College Park, where he faced an unwelcoming environment. Despite these challenges, he graduated in 1952 with honors. Mitchell would state later that the sociological training he received at College Park would shape his activism in politics and social change for years to come.

“Congressman Mitchell’s accomplishments brought him broad recognition but were attained while in the pursuit of the public good, and he serves as a shining example of the ideals we seek to foster as a public academic institution,” said Gregory F. Ball, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS) at the University of Maryland. “This naming honors the memory of a UMD graduate who attained personal prestige while overcoming great obstacles to construct a more just and better world.” 

After serving in many academic and public positions in the 1950s and 1960s, Mitchell became the first African American elected to Congress from Maryland in 1970, as well as the first African-American congressman from below the Mason-Dixon Line since 1898. Representing Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District, Congressman Mitchell was one of the 13 founding members of the Black Caucus, and became known as a staunch supporter of minority-owned businesses. 

Naming the Art-Sociology Building after the late congressman helps recognize and honor Parren Mitchell’s legacy by continuing to advance greater social inclusion, both at the University of Maryland and the community at large. 

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, University of Maryland Students to Discuss Currency Redesign and the New 10

October 9, 2015

Graham Binder, University of Maryland, 301-405-4076
Treasury Public Affairs, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 202-622-2960

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew will visit the University of Maryland for a town hall style conversation with students on currency redesign and the new $10 bill. During the event, titled “Conversation with Secretary Lew on Currency Redesign,” students will have a discussion with the Secretary on which woman they would like to see honored and share their recommendations and ideas about how to feature the meaning of democracy on the next generation of notes.


  • Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew
  • Dr. Gregory F. Ball, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, University of Maryland 
  • University of Maryland students and faculty

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

  • Doors Open: 4:00 p.m. 
  • Event: 4:30 p.m.

Security requires that all media with video or still cameras must arrive for check-in and be in place no later than 3:30 p.m. for a security sweep. There will be no late entry. 

All additional media should arrive prior to the event start time of 4:30 p.m. 

Special Events Room, McKeldin Library, 6th floor 
University of Maryland, College Park 20742

Complimentary parking will be available for media in the Union Lane Garage, adjacent to the Stamp Student Union and a short walk to McKeldin Library. Please identify yourself as a member of the media attending the event to the parking attendant.

Media will be required to show identification and credentials at the media check-in table outside of Special Events Room 6137 in McKeldin Library prior to entering the event. 

A mult-box audio feed will be available at the event.

All media should RSVP to Ronda Buckmon at ronda.buckmon@treasury.gov.

UMD Libraries Celebrate 150th Anniversary of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland"

October 8, 2015

Eric Bartheld 301-314-0964 

Lewis Carroll collectors and University Libraries team up for a “mad” exhibit

Illustration by John Tenniel from the popular 1890 edition of Alice in WonderlandCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – University of Maryland Libraries will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s classic "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" with an exhibit opening Friday, October 16 at Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland.  

Items on exhibit include a rare copy of the first American edition of “Alice in Wonderland” and dozens of international editions featuring Alice as interpreted by publishers and illustrators in Japan, Russia, Australia, Germany and more.

Though best known as the creator of Alice, the fictional girl who fell down a rabbit hole and met creatures such as the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, Carroll was also an inventor, photographer, mathematician and teacher. The exhibit includes a volume of Carroll’s mathematical writings from his personal library.

The exhibit showcases the private collection of Clare and August Imholtz, longtime friends of University of Maryland Libraries and collectors who over 35 years have amassed an extraordinary array of items related to Lewis Carroll. Illustrations and ephemera reveal a cross-cultural look at Alice, and other early works of fiction show Carroll’s broad interests.  

Illustration by John Tenniel from the popular 1890 edition of Alice in Wonderland

“Collecting is fun,” said Clare Imholtz, “and imposes a duty to save, organize, catalog and share.” 

Alice 150 Years and Counting…The Legacy of Lewis Carroll: Selections from the Collection of Clare and August Imholtz is free and open to the public, and runs through July 2016 in the Maryland Room Exhibit Gallery, located in Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland, College Park. An opening reception, to which the public is invited, occurs Friday, October 16, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

For more information including gallery hours and directions, please visit: www.lib.umd.edu/Alice150

UMD Climbs World Higher Education Rankings

October 8, 2015

Kristen Seabolt 301-405-4621

UMD named top 50 global university by U.S. News & World Report 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – This week, the University of Maryland climbed world higher education rankings, rising to No. 41 in the second annual U.S. News & World Report Best Global Universities rankings. UMD is up 10 spots from No. 51 in last year’s inaugural list.

The Best Global Universities rankings encompass the top 750 institutions across 57 countries. These institutions were ranked based on 12 indicators that measured academic research performance and global and regional research reputations. 

UMD was also ranked among the top 25 globally in four subject rankings, including:

  • Geosciences – No. 14 
  • Physics – No. 18 
  • Economics and Business – No. 22
  • Space Science – No. 23 

Nine additional subjects made the top 100, including Agricultural Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Environment/Ecology, Plant and Animal Science, Psychiatry/Psychology, and Social Sciences and Public Health.

Earlier this week, UMD was ranked No. 20 among U.S. public universities in the 2015-2016 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, climbing 6 spots from No. 26 in 2014-2015. In addition, UMD improved in the world rankings to No. 117, up 15 spots from No. 132. The annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings lists the best global research-intensive universities across core values of teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The full U.S. News & World Report Best Global Universities list is available here, and the full Times Higher Education World University Rankings are available here.

Novel Microscopy Method Illuminates Cell Changes Caused by Aging, Injury & Disease

October 7, 2015

Alyssa Wolice 301-405-2057

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A University of Maryland-led team of researchers has developed an optical microscopy technique capable of shedding new light on how the mechanical properties of cells change in the course of aging, injury healing and disease pathogenesis. 

The technique offers promise that one day researchers will be able to identify a more exact starting point for the development of cancers, coronary disease or even osteoporosis. “Using light, we can measure cells inside tissue and we can look inside the cells to distinguish, for example, the properties of the nucleus and cytoplasm,” said team lead Giuliano Scarcelli, assistant professor with UMD’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering.

The team of researchers from UMD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital published their work this week in Nature Methods.

Scientists need a clearer look at how properties of cells change over time, both to learn more about factors that influence everyday biological functions of cells and to better understand how diseases develop. 

Every cell contains a cytoplasm – the thick solution enclosed within the cell by the cell membrane. Primarily composed of water, salts, and proteins, the cytoplasm is where most cellular activities occur. Even more, the cytoplasm serves as a means of transport for genetic material and acts as a buffer, protecting the cell’s genetic material from damage due to movement or collision with other cells. 

For years, researchers have known that the interaction between the liquid and solid phases within the cytoplasm plays a prominent role in how cells deform and move. As such, the ability to map the hydro-mechanical properties of cells – such as viscoelasticity and compressibility – is critical to advancing understanding of how cell properties change as a symptom of disease in the body or as part of normal biological functions, such as when wounds heal.

Traditionally, techniques used to study the mechanical properties of cells have either required contact with cells or have produced images with limited resolution. As a result, information on the biomechanical properties of cells in 3-D environments is lacking. 

“Gold-standard techniques require contact, therefore they are inherently limited to providing global averages of cell properties and to experimental situations where you have physical access to the cell,” Scarcelli said. 

To address this, Scarcelli and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Massachusetts General Hospital have introduced a technique known as Brillouin optical cell microscopy for noninvasive, 3-D mapping of intracellular and extracellular hydro-mechanical properties. Their technique employs Brillouin light scattering, a process that occurs when light interacts with density fluctuations in a medium. These spontaneous fluctuations are driven by collective acoustic vibrational modes, known as phonons, in the gigahertz frequency range. In this way, Brillouin microscopy yields invaluable information on the viscoelastic characteristics of cells – and does so at a microscopic resolution no other technique can match.

As such, Brillouin microscopy opens up new research avenues for the biomechanical investigation of cells and their microenvironment in 3-D at subcellular resolution. 

Continuing in collaboration with Roger Kamm at MIT, the research team is now taking advantage of the unique capabilities of Brillouin microscopy to look at a crucial property of metastatic cells – their ability to modulate their internal mechanical properties to enter and exit blood vessels to colonize distant sites. The team’s efforts recently earned them a five-year, $3 million National Institutes of Health grant to study tumor cell extravasation. 

Along with Scarcelli and Kamm, William J. Polacheck, Hadi T. Nia, and Alan J. Grodzinsky of MIT, Kripa Patel of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine, and Seok-Hyun Yun of the Wellman Center and Harvard Medical School co-authored the Nature Methods paper titled, “Noncontact three-dimensional mapping of intracellular hydro-mechanical properties by Brillouin microscopy.”

At UMD Scarcelli specializes in biophotonics with strong emphasis on optical sciences and technology development. Prior to joining the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, he served as an instructor with the Harvard Medical School and Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the inventor in four patents, all licensed to industry, and his work with Brillouin microscopy earned him the Tosteson Postdoctoral Fellowship Award, a NIH K25 Career Development Award, and a Young Investigator Award from the Human Frontier Science Program. 

UMD Libraries Celebrate Contributions to Chronicling America's 10 Million Pages

October 7, 2015

Eric Bartheld 301-314-0964 

Free, searchable database of historic newspapers reflects Maryland’s history

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland Libraries joins the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities in celebrating a major milestone for Chronicling America, a free, searchable database of historic U.S. newspapers. The Library of Congress announced that more than 10 million pages have been posted to the site. This number includes contributions from the University of Maryland of tens of thousands of pages from 11 Maryland newspapers, with 10 more titles to be added by the end of 2016.

Launched by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2007, Chronicling America provides enhanced and permanent access to historically significant newspapers published in the United States between 1836 and 1922. It is part of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a joint effort between the two agencies and partners in 40 states and territories. 

The NDNP awards grants to entities in each state and territory to identify and digitize historic newspaper content. Awardees receive NEH funding to select and digitize 100,000 pages of historic newspapers published in their states between 1836 and 1922. Uniform technical specifications are provided to ensure consistency of all content, and digital files are transferred to the Library of Congress for long-term management and access. The first awards were made in 2005. Since then, NEH has awarded more than $30 million in support of the project.

The University of Maryland Libraries was awarded its first NDNP grant of $325,000 in 2012 to launch the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project. In the first two years of the project, 107,414 pages were digitized and made available in Chronicling America, the majority from a Baltimore paper written for an audience of German immigrants called Der Deutsche Correspondent. The project also included English newspapers published in Cumberland, Hagerstown and Baltimore. The second grant of $290,000, currently underway, was awarded in 2014. It will be used to digitize newspapers from Elkton, Leonardtown, Thurmont, Rockville, and more.

“This project demonstrates in a very real way how technology can help Maryland citizens and others learn about Maryland history,” says Babak Hamidzadeh, Interim Dean of Libraries and Associate Dean of Digital Systems and Stewardship of the University of Maryland Libraries. “But it also demonstrates our growing expertise in applying technology to create new and better ways to discover information.”

UMD Researchers Define & Measure Planet's Total Forest Area

October 6, 2015

Laura Ours 301-405-5722

COLLEGE PARK, Md.  – A University of Maryland research team is the first to compare eight global, satellite-based maps to determine the planet’s total forest area, and the information gaps they uncovered were surprising.

“We were amazed to find that the results varied by an area equaling 12 percent of Earth’s land surface—that’s half as large as the United States. That’s a lot of missing trees,” said Joseph Sexton, geographical sciences associate research professor at UMD and the study’s lead author.

Conservation policy and the measurement of forests” appears in Nature Climate Change. The report was coauthored by Sexton and scientists at the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility, the National Wildlife Federation, the Global Environment Facility and Duke University.

The researchers also discovered that the disputed areas coincide with 45 billion tons of biomass valued at $1 trillion. Given the importance of quantifying forest cover to international climate negotiations, they wondered how such a wide variance could exist among scientific estimates.

“The difference originates not so much in our technical ability to measure the forests as it does in the way we define them,” Sexton said.

Measurement uncertainties remain in many challenging areas—especially those perennially obscured by clouds. But citing technological advances led by the NASA Earth Science Program, the authors note that this imprecision will shrink over time by “an increasing breadth of sensors providing greater temporal frequency, more accurate reference measurements, and better penetration of clouds.”

The eight datasets each reported a high level of precision, so next the authors checked their most fundamental assumption—what it means to be a forest. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the international body responsible for climate governance—allows countries to define forests as parcels of land exceeding a threshold of tree cover, measured as a percentage. The team applied this range of thresholds to the world’s first global, high-resolution dataset of tree cover. Differences resulting from the definitions were concentrated in the planet’s sparse forests, shrub lands and savannahs, and they coincide precisely with uncertainty among the independent sources. 

“This was no mere academic dispute. This failure to communicate covers a huge expanse of the terrestrial biosphere,” said coauthor Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke. The various datasets had been using different definitions. Each was aiming precisely, but at a different target.

Led by the NASA Earth Science program, a fleet of Earth-imaging satellites now stream terabytes of data daily to ecologists, hydrologists, climatologists, and economists who use the data to study the global ecosystem. The American satellites are increasingly being joined by sensors launched by European, Chinese, and other nations’ space agencies. Even private companies, from Google to “microsatellite” tech startups, have joined the effort. 

With the problem identified and mapped, the scientists offer a solution. 

“We [the science and policy communities] must refine our focus from the abstract concept of forests toward the ecological attributes used to define them,” Sexton said. “To understand the forces impacting forests globally, and to sustain the services they provide, science and policy must now communicate in more measurable terms. Our language has to keep pace with the science.” 


November 24
Digital measurements of millions of trees indicate that previous studies likely overestimate the amount of carbon... Read
November 24
New methodology to incentivize funding streams for coastal wetland restoration projects. Read
November 24
Event offered researchers the opportunity to present their innovations and explain why they matter to the world. Read
November 23
Study provides evidence in support of culturally-tailored public health interventions targeted to groups of women that... Read