Using Ecological Forecasts to Guide Decision Making

This module was developed by W.M. Woelmer, R.Q. Thomas, and C.C. Carey. 21 January 2021. Macrosystems EDDIE: Using Ecological Forecasts to Guide Decision-Making. Macrosystems EDDIE Module 8, Version 1. Module development was supported by NSF grants DEB-1926050 and DBI-1933016.


Because of increased variability in populations, communities, and ecosystems due to land use and climate change, there is a pressing need to know the future state of ecological systems across space and time. Ecological forecasting is an emerging approach which provides an estimate of the future state of an ecological system with uncertainty, allowing society to preemptively prepare for fluctuations in important ecosystem services. However, forecasts must be effectively designed and communicated to those who need them to make decisions in order to realize their potential for protecting natural resources.

In this module, students will learn the basic components of an ecological forecast; how ecological forecasts can be used to aid in decision-making; and how visualizations of ecological forecasts can impact decision-making.

The overarching goal of this module is for students to understand how forecasts are connected to decision-making of stakeholders, or the managers, policy-makers, and other members of society who use forecasts to inform decision-making.

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Learning Goals

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • Describe what ecological forecasts are and how they are used (Activity A)
  • Identify the components of a structured decision (Activity A, B, C)
  • Examine how an ecological forecast may affect decision-making (Activity B)
  • Understand how stakeholder needs affect forecasting decision support (Activity B, C)
  • Discuss factors which influence uncertainty in forecast output and how forecast uncertainty relates to decision-making (Activity A, B, C)
  • Create visualizations tailored to specific stakeholders (Activity C)

Context for Use

This entire module can be completed in one 2-3 hour lab period or two 60-minute lecture periods for introductory undergraduate students. Activities A and B could be completed with upper level students in two 60-minute lecture periods, with Activity C as a separate add-on activity.

This module is recommended for introductory undergraduate students in Applied Ecology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, and Environmental Social Science. Module Activities A and C can be tailored to focus on specific types of ecological forecasts for classes whose curriculum may be tailored to a certain type of ecosystem (e.g., terrestrial forecasts).

It is helpful for the instructor to have a working knowledge of the basic components of ecological forecasts and structured decision-making to help troubleshoot and respond to student questions. We provide a brief introduction to these topics as part of the Teaching Materials, below.

Description and Teaching Materials

Quick overview of the activities in this module

See the instructor manual, provided below, for a step-by-step guide for carrying out this module. A student handout describing Activities A, B, and C, and instructor PowerPoint are also provided.

  1. Introduction to Ecological Forecasting: Pre-readings and PowerPoint in class
  2. Activity A: Explore an existing ecological forecast
  3. Activity B: Make decisions informed by a real water quality forecast
  4. Activity C: Explore how different visualizations might impact decision-making

Why macrosystems ecology?

Macrosystems ecology is the study of ecological dynamics at multiple interacting spatial and temporal scales (e.g., Heffernan et al. 2014). Macrosystems ecology recently emerged as a new sub-discipline of ecology to study ecosystems and ecological communities around the globe that are changing at an unprecedented rate because of human activities (IPCC 2013). The responses of ecosystems and communities are complex, non-linear, and driven by feedbacks across local, regional, and global scales (Heffernan et al. 2014). These characteristics necessitate novel approaches for making predictions about how systems may change to improve both our understanding of ecological phenomena as well as inform resource management.

Ecological forecasting

Forecasting is a tool that can be used for understanding changes in macrosystems ecology. To anticipate and prepare for increased variability in populations, communities, and ecosystems, there is a pressing need to know the future state of ecological systems across space and time (Dietze et al., 2018). Ecological forecasting is an emerging approach which provides an estimate of the future state of an ecological system with uncertainty, allowing society to prepare for changes in important ecosystem services. Ecological forecasts are a powerful test of the scientific method because ecologists make a hypothesis of how an ecological system works; embed their hypothesis in a model; use the model to make a forecast of future conditions; and then when observations become available, assess the accuracy of their forecast, which indicates if their hypothesis is supported or if it needs to be updated. Consequently, macrosystems ecologists are increasingly using ecological forecasts to predict how ecosystems are changing over space and time.

The theme of this module is understanding how forecasts are connected to decision-making of stakeholders, or the managers, policy-makers, and other members of society who use forecasts to inform decision-making. Ecological forecasts have vast potential for aiding decision-making for range of different stakeholders, yet may be challenging to understand because they inherently are associated with uncertainty in alternate future outcomes which have not yet occurred. This module will teach students the basic components of an ecological forecast; how to connect forecast visualizations to stakeholder needs for aiding decision-making; and to create their own visualizations of probabilistic forecasts of ecological variables for a specific stakeholder.

Workflow for this module:

  1. Have students access the RShiny App before class and assign the students a Class ID (e.g., InstructorLastName_University_MonthYear) which will be used to collect and visualize answers from your class.
  2. Give students their handout ahead of time to read over prior to class, or distribute handouts when they arrive to class. We recommend having students read pages 1-3 before class, and that instructors print out pages 4-9 to have students complete during the module if using face to face instruction. For virtual instruction, we recommend uploading the handout to a learning management system (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle) for students to fill in as they proceed through the materials.
  3. Instructor gives brief PowerPoint presentation that introduces ecological forecasts and how they can be used to guide decision making, provides an overview to structured decision making, and how different visualizations of forecasts can impact decision-making. 
  4. After the presentation, the students divide into pairs and answer questions about an ecological forecast that they choose from a curated list of current forecasting systems used by stakeholders (Activity A).
  5. The instructor then introduces Activity B, in which students work together in pairs to make management decisions about optimizing drinking water quality in a drinking water reservoir (Activity B).
  6. The students create hypotheses about how to manage the drinking water reservoir as the forecasts are updated with observations and uncertainty changes over time (Activity B).
  7. The instructor then introduces Activity C, in which students work in pairs and role play individual stakeholders of a drinking water reservoir.
  8. The students identify a decision that their stakeholder needs to make using a water quality forecast and make a hypothesis about how different types of forecast visualizations will aid in their stakeholder's decision-making. Students then compare their hypotheses with their partner (Activity C). 
  9. Students then create specialized forecasts for aiding their stakeholder in decision-making and present their visualization to the class, with the instructor moderating the discussion (Activity C).


Teaching Materials:

Teaching materials coming soon...

Teaching Notes and Tips

If you have any questions or any problems with this module, please reach out to us at


  • Students choose from a list of existing ecological forecasts and answer questions to identify basic components of a forecast, stakeholders and stakeholder usage, and examine how forecasts are visualized.
  • Students use a real water quality forecasting system to make decisions about managing a drinking water reservoir for recreation and health. Students identify the components of a structured decision and explore how forecast uncertainty changes over time.
  • Students learn different ways to visualize uncertainty in forecast output and discuss the value of different types of visualizations for different stakeholder decision-making purposes. Finally, students create their own version of an ecological forecasting visualization tailored for a specific stakeholder.

References and Resources

Optional pre-class readings and videos

Tools and data used in this module

  • Thomas, R.Q., R.J. Figueiredo, V. Daneshman, B.J. Bookout, L.K. Puckett, and C.C. Carey. A Near-Term Iterative Forecasting System Successfully Predicts Reservoir Hydrodynamics and Partitions Uncertainty in Real Time. 2020. Water Resources Research 56(11):1-20.
  • Carey, C.C., W.M. Woelmer, M.E. Lofton, R.J. Figueiredo, B.J. Bookout, R.S. Corrigan, V. Daneshmand, A.G. Hounshell, D.W. Howard, A.S.L. Lewis, R.P. McClure, H.L. Wander, N.K. Ward, and R.Q. Thomas. Advancing lake and reservoir water quality management with near-term, iterative ecological forecasting. In press at Inland Waters