Just as answering one question leads to several more, developments in one scientific field often create entirely new areas of study.

When a new field emerges it brings new work to be done, research to be undertaken, jobs to filled and funds to be raised.

This is beginning to occur in a new field in the US, with several papers submitted to a special journal edition dedicated to fleshing out the novel thinking of ‘macrosystems ecology’.

“Ecologists can no longer sample and study just one or even a handful of ecosystems,” said Patricia Soranno, Michigan State University professor of fisheries and wildlife and macrosystems ecology pioneer.

“We also need to study lots of ecosystems and use lots of data to tackle many environmental problems such as climate change, land-use change and invasive species, because such problems exist at a larger scale than many problems from the past.”

Nine papers have been published in a special edition of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The papers show the advantages of taking a new approach to solve many environmental problems.

Data-intensive science is being hailed as a new way to do studies of all kinds, ecology included.

“Traditionally, ecologists are trained by studying and taking samples from the field in places like forests, grasslands, wetlands or water and measuring things in the lab,” Soranno said.

“In the future, at least some ecologists will need to also be trained in advanced computational methods that will allow them to study complex systems using big datasets at this large scale and to help integrate fine and broad-scale studies into a richer understanding of environmental problems.”

Ecologists have decades of data piled up which may be helped by the new perspective.

Some sources include small and individual projects from university researchers, government resource monitoring efforts often spanning years, terabytes of data from field sensors and observation systems, and millions of high-definition satellite images.

With the constant improvement of computer power, access and analysing ability, the latest statistical modelling and geographic information system tools become powerful weapons for the ecologist.

“An important question we’re facing right now is whether ecologists will be the leaders in solving many of today’s top environmental problems that need a broad-scale approach,” Soranno said.

“Seeing the research that has been done to date by macrosystems ecologists already doing this work and reading the papers that make up this issue, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’,” she concluded.