How satellites could slow the decline of wildlife

Conservation scientists are pursuing collaboration with space agencies in order to monitor wildlife decline on a global scale.

This image, captured by the Landsat-8 satellite, shows the view over Western Australia on May 12, 2013. The image shows rich sediment and nutrient patterns in a tropical estuary area and complex patterns and conditions in vegetated areas. The water patterns are the result of an RGB display of Landsat-8's red, blue, and ultra-blue bands. Land is shown using short-wavelength-infrared, near-infrared and green.

When facing a tough problem, sometimes it helps to step back and get some perspective.

That’s the logic behind a proposal made Wednesday in the journal Nature. In the wake of staggering wildlife declines, researchers are calling for collaboration between conservation scientists and space agencies. They say satellite imaging could track often-overlooked global trends in biodiversity, thus informing environmental policy and conservation efforts on the ground.

According to a recent WWF estimate, half of all vertebrate species on the planet experienced severe population declines between 1970 and 2010. Monitoring biodiversity is an essential step in slowing down this loss, but current research tends to focus on specific locations and species, rather than broader trends. Now, conservation scientists are requesting the cooperation of space agencies, like NASA and the European Space Agency, in order to observe global environmental conditions.

“Satellites offer a way to collect information in places that are relatively inaccessible to scientists, because of their remoteness or because of political instabilities,” says Nathalie Pettorelli, co-author and researcher for the Zoological Society of London. “It also allows you to collect information in repeatable, standardized, and verifiable ways, for the whole planet.”

“To give you an example,” she adds, “thanks to satellites, we can access reliable information about primary productivity [the conversion of carbon dioxide into organic material, such as with photosynthesis] in every place on Earth on a bi-monthly basis. It would simply be impossible to access the same information using on-the-ground monitoring.”

And such measures shouldn’t be logistically difficult, Dr. Pettorelli suggests, since global monitoring has already been effectively implemented in other fields.

“We do know that global monitoring is feasible,” Pettorelli says. “Global monitoring has been effectively implemented in climatology, which is why we are for example able to predict next day’s weather for any place on Earth.”

NASA and ESA already provide open-access satellite data, but without direction, that data can be broad and unusable for conservation scientists. That’s why interdisciplinary dialogue is so necessary, Pettorelli says.

“Authors on this published comment include staff from NASA and ESA,” she says. “So yes, some space agencies are really involved with these discussions and interested in helping make progress on designing a satellite-based approach to biodiversity monitoring. We are hoping that this comment will enthuse not only the space agencies in general, but also the conservation community as a whole, as well as policy-makers involved with environmental management.”

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