Satellite remote sensing - a conservation revolution

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By Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Zoology, ZSL.

Global biodiversity isn’t exactly doing well: the latest IPBES report estimates that up to 1 million species may be at risk of extinction, many within decades. This biodiversity crisis, combined with the current climate crisis, is leading the planet’s life-support systems to approach a danger zone for humanity. How do we get out of this dire situation? We need many things to happen: a revolution in how we eat, travel and use resources; strong political commitment; changes in what we value and why; a rethink of our position in the natural world. But there’s more: we need better information on both the status of biodiversity and also what conservation measures are working; we also need to get better at predicting the consequences of our actions on nature and its functioning. In short, for many parts of the world, we need more data.

Satellite data, and the tools that ecologists use to analyse them, are more accessible and plentiful than ever, and offer a real opportunity to address this data gap – yet most conservationists are unaware of the myriad of opportunities satellites provide to garner a better understanding of the natural world. To help address this issue, I recently published a book with Oxford University Press to help familiarise prospective users in the conservation community with satellite remote sensing technology and its applications, introducing terminology and principles behind satellite remote sensing data and analyses. The book assumes no prior technical knowledge of satellite remote sensing systems and products. It is written to generate interest in the ecological, environmental management and remote sensing communities, highlighting issues associated with the emergence of truly synergistic approaches between these disciplines.

Book cover for "Satellie Remote Sensing and the Management of Natural Resources" by Nathalie Pettorelli, 2019

Its eleven chapters provide a detailed overview of the possible applications of satellite data in natural resource management, and demonstrate how ecological knowledge and satellite-based information can be effectively combined to address a wide array of current natural resource management needs. Topics include the use of satellite data to monitor the various dimensions of biodiversity; the use of this technology to track pressures on biodiversity such as invasive species, pollution and illegal fishing; the use of satellite remote sensing to inform the management of protected areas, translocation and habitat restoration; and the contribution of satellite remote sensing towards the monitoring of ecosystem services and wellbeing. Key examples from the terrestrial, freshwater and marine realms are detailed.

Google Earth imagery (with very high spatial resolution) depicting seals resting on a beach

The last chapters provide a more personal perspective on the future potential of satellite data to support conservation. Specifically, I offer an overview of current and future opportunities for satellite data to inform large scale agreements relevant to natural resource management, providing a brief introduction to relevant international agreements and existing platforms, groups and committees facilitating the integration of satellite remote sensing data at such level. There, I also discuss possible future directions and challenges ahead, looking for example at emerging initiatives and concepts that have the potential to be informed directly or indirectly using satellite remote sensing, such as rewilding.

False-colour images captured by Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 show the Shebelle River (East Africa) on May 17 2015 (normal) & on May 9 2018, after significant flooding burst the banks destroying crops and homes.

Improving our understanding of Earth’s species and ecosystems is ultimately a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. Fully embracing the power of technologies such as satellite remote sensing could propel conservation sciences to a new level, enabling detailed monitoring in remote regions, revolutionising ecological and behavioural sciences, assisting with accountability assessments to enforce environmental agreements, and providing key information to optimise the outcomes of various management actions. To capitalise effectively on the current techno-environmental revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries; challenging technophobic discourses and old views about the relative trustworthiness of remote sensing data; changing the current focus of ecological and environmental university courses, exposing students early on to relevant technology-based training and industry placements.

Active fire (detected from space from high temperature using thermal bands of multispectral sensors) & burn scars (detected by multispectral & radar sensors via change in surface structure & darker colour) in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, USA.

But it will also involve being more transparent and honest about the limitations and problems associated with the use of technology in environmental management and conservation, communicating for example more broadly and effectively about issues linked to accuracy and biases, but also about the potentially severe social implications of using very high resolution imagery without appropriate legislative and ethical frameworks or about the increased use of technological devices leading to the creation of additional e-waste. As conservation science and practice continue to change under the influence of technology, more attention will also need to be paid in the future to who benefits from the use of certain types of technologies, and who does not, who is in control of information flows and processes, and how democratisation may be promoted.

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