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Advancing estuarine ecological forecasts: Seasonal hypoxia in Chesapeake Bay

June 14, 2021

Ecological forecasts are quantitative tools that can guide ecosystem management. The coemergence of extensive environmental monitoring and quantitative frameworks allows for widespread development and continued improvement of ecological forecasting systems. We use a relatively simple estuarine hypoxia model to demonstrate advances in addressing some of the most critical challenges and opportunities of contemporary ecological forecasting, including predictive accuracy, uncertainty characterization, and management relevance. We explore the impacts of different combinations of forecast metrics, drivers, and driver time windows on predictive performance. We also incorporate multiple sets of state-variable observations from different sources and separately quantify model prediction error and measurement uncertainty through a flexible Bayesian hierarchical framework. Results illustrate the benefits of (1) adopting forecast metrics and drivers that strike an optimal balance between predictability and relevance to management, (2) incorporating multiple data sources in the calibration data set to separate and propagate different sources of uncertainty, and (3) using the model in scenario mode to probabilistically evaluate the effects of alternative management decisions on future ecosystem state. In the Chesapeake Bay, the subject of this case study, we find that average summer or total annual hypoxia metrics are more predictable than monthly metrics and that measurement error represents an important source of uncertainty. Application of the model in scenario mode suggests that absent watershed management actions over the past decades, long-term average hypoxia would have increased by 7% compared to 1985. Conversely, the model projects that if management goals currently in place to restore the Bay are met, long-term average hypoxia would eventually decrease by 32% with respect to the mid-1980s.