The Big Data cluster investigates ecological resilience and resistance by focusing on vulnerable systems experiencing overlapping disturbances such as drought, fires, heavy precipitation, and acidification.

Our project uses seasonally snow-covered environments because these lie close to potential thresholds in water and energy balance and are particularly vulnerable.

We use data-driven approaches and novel complex-systems tools in combination with process-based approaches. This combination allows us to complement the traditional linear trajectory of investigation (i.e., developing a hypothesis, planning experiments, and collecting and analyzing data to test the hypothesis) with an iterative approach, where data-driven analyses and process understanding inform each other and refine investigative approaches over each iteration. To accomplish this hybrid investigative approach, the teams working on data science, CZ science, and education and outreach work closely with each other and share responsibilities.


The processes that govern the responses to disturbances are very complex and many traditional research methods are not adapted to disentangling the processes and ecosystem characteristics that make our environment resilient. We use a group of statistical tools that can find patterns in a lot of noise and deal with this complexity (aptly called “complex systems tools"). Our project is called the "Big Data Cluster” because we use these tools on “Big Data”, i.e. existing and newly collected data that have either high volume (a lot of data), high velocity (almost real-time data), variety (very different data types), veracity (data of varying quality) and/or value (data ready for use).

Field Sites

Sleepers River Research Watershed

Our main site in the NE is the Sleepers River Research Watershed (SRRW). Situated in northeastern Vermont, this forested watershed experienced strong acidification via wet and dry deposition. Carbonates in the glacial till counteracted the most significant effects of acidification. About 23% of all annual precipitation falls as snow and SRRW is experiencing more heavy precipitation compared to previous decades, thus has overlapping disturbances.

An image of a reiver at the Sleepers River Research Watershed Association

Illilouette Creek Basin

The Illilouette Creek Basin (ICB) in the wilderness area of Yosemite National Park provides a unique opportunity to study the overlapping disturbance of both fire and drought on a mountain watershed, since it has experienced nearly 30 lightning-ignited wildfires in the past 47 years. Such frequent fires were common in this area prior to human fire suppression, and scientists from many fields are studying whether this natural disturbance is having a beneficial effect on ecosystems and water. The watershed has large granite domes, but also wide valleys that support soil and groundwater systems. 65% of annual precipitation falls as snow, with dry summers.

Snow and mountains in the Illilouette Creek Basin near Yosmetie National Park.

Jemez River Basin

The Jemez River Basin (JRB) in the Valles Caldera National Preserve is an intensively instrumented catchment that will complement the Illilouette, as it has both burned and unburned areas. The catchments are underlain by volcanic tuff, covered by thick soils in concave landscape positions that are shallower on slopes. About 50% of all precipitation falls as snow.

grass, trees, and mountains at the Jemez River Basin in the Valles Caldera National Preserve