Big data says time’s running out to save the environment
"The more we map and analyze, the more we find the state of the environment, albeit Antarctic ice sheets, wetlands, or forests, is dire."
Big data can help scientists chart not only the degradation of the environment but also help achieve sustainability, according to a new paper.
Lead author Rebecca Runting from the University of Melbourne’s School of Geography says that while we currently have an unprecedented ability to generate, store, access, and analyze data about the environment, these technological advances will not help the world unless they lead to action.
“Big data analyses must be closely linked to environmental policy and management,” Runting says. “For example, many large companies already possess the methodological, technical, and computational capacity to develop solutions, so it is paramount that new developments and resources are shared timely with government, and in the spirit of ‘open data.'”
The authors note that 2.3 million km 2 (888,035 square miles) of forest were lost from 2000 to 2012 and that dynamic marine and coastal ecosystems have experienced similar declines. An analysis of over 700,000 satellite images shows that Earth has lost more than 20,000 km 2 (7,722 square miles) of tidal flats since 1984.
“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently seeing governments making rapid (health) decisions based on fairly sophisticated data analysis,” Runting says. “There may be opportunities to learn from this and achieve a similarly tight coupling of analysis and decision-making in the environmental sector.”
With platforms like Google Earth Engine and the capacity of satellites to track and send information quickly to computers, big data was capable of identifying eco-health risks globally, says coauthor James Watson, a professor from the University of Queensland.
“What the big data revolution has helped us understand is the environment is often doing worse than what we thought it was. The more we map and analyze, 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,” Watson says.
“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 .”
Runting says big data has been pivotal in quantifying alarming spatial and temporal trends across Earth. For example, an automated vessel tracking and monitoring system is being used to predict illegal fishing activity in real-time.
“This has allowed governments quickly investigate particular vessels that may be undertaking illegal fishing activity within their jurisdiction, including within Australian waters,” she says. Similarly, Queensland’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study uses satellite imagery to monitor woody vegetation clearing, including the detection of illegal clearing.
Watson cites a similar example. “Global forest watch has been a game change for monitoring the state of the world forests in near real time. This can help identify illegal activities and informed active enforcement of forest conservation around the world,” Watson says.
The paper also notes positive environmental changes due to human intervention such as greening seen in large expanses in China, which large scale national policies, including forest conservation and payments for restoration, drove.
The work appears in Nature Communications .
Source: University of Melbourne
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