Coupling big data and conservation

The “big data revolution” offers an unprecedented opportunity to better chart environmental degradation and inform global conservation and sustainability, according to a commentary in the journal Nature Communications.

But to harness this potential, big data outputs need to be better integrated with the international conservation process, says lead author Rebecca Runting, from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

New technologies such as remote sensing have led to a staggering amount of data, now approaching 40 zettabytes (40 trillion gigabytes), presenting exciting opportunities for new applications and analyses, Runting says.

“But it’s easy to quickly lose sight of the bigger picture – that these new data are showing dramatic declines in both our environment and the Earth’s capacity to support humans.”

The researchers sought to bring the bigger picture into focus and forge a way forward to use big data to help save the planet’s ecosystems, which have suffered debilitating losses from anthropogenic threats.

First, they explored analyses with an environmental focus, which painted an even bleaker picture than previous reports.

For instance, a landmark evaluation of 20 terapixels of data generated over 10,000 parallel computers using Google Earth Engine revealed that 2.3 million square kilometres of forest were lost between 2000 and 2012, mostly in tropical forests.

recent investigation of around 700,000 satellite images found that Earth has lost more than 20,000 square kilometres of tidal flats – wetlands that provide coastal buffers and sustain rich ecosystems – over the past three decades.

The news isn’t all bad though. The team’s next step was to search for evidence of successful initiatives that are countering the downward trajectory. 

“This was more promising,” says Runting. “Encouragingly, these bright spots were more often due to human intervention.”

Large scale forest conservation and restoration policies in China, for instance, have produced large expanses of greening.

Overall, humans in wealthy countries reduced their environmental footprint between 1993 and 2009 – it increased by 9% relative to 53% population growth and 153% economic growth, suggesting more efficient use of Earth’s resources. 

However, the human footprint increased by more than 20% in more than two-thirds of global ecoregions.

Senior author James Watson, from the University of Queensland, underscores the need to tap information generated by satellites and earth monitoring platforms.

“The more we map and analyse, the more we find the state of the environment, albeit Antarctic ice sheets, wetlands or forests, is dire. Big data tells us we are running out of time.

“The good news is the big data revolution can help us better understand risk. For example, we can use data to better understand where future ecosystem degradation will take place and where these interact with wildlife trade, so as to map pandemic risk.”

Currently, despite international agreement on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, 80% of the fifth round of National Reports of these targets contained no actionable maps, Runting notes, suggesting many nations are not effectively tracking their progress.

“It is vital that barriers to accessing and using derived big data products are removed,” she says, “potentially through a streamlined reporting process that automatically extracts the relevant data for each country.”

By monitoring rapid environmental change and threats in real-time, big data can also speed up management responses. 

This is successfully being applied to nip illegal fishing in the bud, for instance, with Global Fishing Watch, an automated vessel tracking and monitoring system

On land, Global Forest Watch has been a “game-changer” for monitoring world forests, Runting says, and can help identify illegal land clearing activities to inform active enforcement of forest conservation.

But she notes that big data is no substitute for engaging with local communities – these need to go hand in hand.

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