This swarm of grasshoppers surrounding Albuquerque, New Mexico, part of a region-wide summer 2014 infestation, showed up on Doppler radar. (Image: National Weather Service)

In the 1870s, U.S. prairie skies swelled with Rocky Mountain locusts. In its greatest swarms, trillions of insects denuded acres of farmland each minute as they swept from Texas to Colorado.

Some decades later, the first recorded H1N1 flu pandemic, the Spanish Flu, arose near the end of the First World War, killing some five percent of the world’s people.

During epidemics and insect outbreaks and many other ecological processes, local oscillations in species population numbers have been known to synchronize over large geographic regions. Such extraordinary, widespread explosions and crashes in numbers were long thought to be an effect of a subpopulation’s geographic range, and any concurrent rises or falls among other subpopulations were often attributed to large-scale environmental conditions, such as a continent-wide drought, that spanned the range of the species.

Recently, though, researchers have modeled ecological systems where long-range synchrony can emerge amid fluctuating subpopulations.

The phenomenon is well known in physics – such as when magnetic moments of electrons align, forming permanent magnets. But in physics, systems behave according to well-known laws. Ecology is quite a bit messier.

“The quality of data is often laughably poor,” says theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings of UC Davis, and ecological data sets are typically noisy and spatially small compared to the tens of thousands of data points measured in material science studies.

Despite the challenge, detecting synchrony in biology is worthwhile. A species is robust when its pockets of populations grow and shrink independently, but it can become significantly more vulnerable when all population levels are low – and a single event can trigger a collapse.

Hastings, SFI External Professor Jonathan Machta (UMass Amherst), and Andrew Noble (UC Davis) organized the invitation-only working group to explore variations, measures, and early indicators of synchrony in ecology.

The meeting is supported by the NSF’s new INSPIRE grant program.

More information about the working group here.

Read a paper about their work in Nature Communications (April 8, 2015)

Read an article about their work in The Epoch Times (April 19, 2015)