Stepping into the SWOS Portal: How Coordination of Data Can Help Protect the World’s Vanishing Wetlands

The Earth has lost more than half of its wetland extent since 1900. The satellite-based Wetland Observation Service (SWOS) is working to provide a data portal that will have real-world impacts, helping to track wetland degradation, identify pollution sources, and assess restoration strategies.

Above: Landsat satellite image examples of the Sabkhat al Jabbulin in Syria, produced in the frame of GlobWetland II. The images, from left to right, were taken in June of 1975, 1990, and 2005, and show changes in wetland distribution. The second two images are true color composites while the first image is a color composite with infrared channels. Image Credit: Landsat

Since the beginning of the 20th century, wetland extent has declined drastically. The Ramsar Convention, which focuses on wetland assessment and protection, estimates the loss as between 64 and 71 percent across the globe. Degradation of wetlands continues today, but researchers, stakeholders, and data managers are working to coordinate data and information to help address this ecological concern.

Wetlands are a breeding ground for life, rivaling rainforests in their productivity. In spring, the air is filled with insects transforming from aquatic pupae into flight-borne adults. Migrating birds rely on wetlands as a stop-over in their journey, dependent on the abundance food sources that wetlands provide. For other species, wetlands are the final destination for breeding.

The ecosystem services provided by wetlands are numerous, ranging from freshwater supply and food production to water filtration and flood mitigation. Yet wetlands continue to face threats of pollution, draining, and encroachment. Better data availability can help track these changes and allow decision-makers to better protect the resources.

There is no shortage of data available, but data sharing has been limited by available infrastructure, and consistency is not always present between data collection and data management methods among different data collectors. SWOS is one of the projects seeking to improve standardization, simplify data sharing, and transform data into products.

In partnership with the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the SWOS project (Satellite-based Wetland Observation Service) aims to help improve wetland management by providing an information portal that offers in situ data, remotely sensed data, and satellite-derived information in a user-oriented format. SWOS will offer a data portal designed to help users find information and data products that can answer questions about local water use and quality, changing wetland conditions, or adherence to water policies.

“This portal will be the first step for a Global Wetland Observing Systems (GWOS) that the Ramsar Convention decided to install. With SWOS we will provide infrastructure for that,” said Kathrin Weise, SWOS project coordinator.

Weise is a project manager at Jena-Optronik, a supplier of space technologies and data management infrastructure and a partner of the SWOS project located in Jena, Germany, part of SWOS’s project consortium. Weise is the coordinator responsible for supervising interactions between project partners, political stake-holders, and user-organizations.

Managing the technical side of the SWOS project falls to Christian Huettich, also of Jena-Optronik. Huettich is responsible for overseeing the development of the Web-based infrastructure of the portal that facilitates data sharing, defines preferred methodologies, offers data storage, and provides software for processing satellite images. The technical side of the project is a large undertaking, and SWOS builds off of the work of previous projects such as GlobWetland and GlobWetland II.

A sample visualization of what the SWOS portal could look like. Image Credit: Jena-Optronik

A sample visualization of what the SWOS portal could look like. Image Credit: Jena-Optronik

“In the last years we were flooded with data: Too much data and too little time and too few resources to analyze it,” Huettich said. “This is a huge challenge, and working with this project and working with other projects, we were trying to get all this information together in a smart way.”

With SWOS, users will be able to visit the portal website to access information or utilize an application for mobile devices that can be retrieved from the portal. The software will be free and open source to the public and will offer a means of creating products, such as soil moisture maps, by processing data from satellite Sentinel I. A beta version is anticipated to launch later this year.

“The concept of this geoportal is not just a website,” Huettich explained. “It’s the entry-point for (access to) all kinds of data: not just satellite data, but also data connected to a specific wetland site. That’s called the brokering, so the website has different clients and is the data broker.”

The idea of “clients” and providing data to meet a specific need is central to the creation of the SWOS portal. SWOS is intended to help countries involved in Ramsar report on the wetlands they have pledged to manage. In order to help managers better understand the threats to their wetlands or the efficacy protection efforts, SWOS has incorporated feedback from multiple communities throughout the process.

“We are developing a system with users, for users,” said Weise.

One way to incorporate user-feedback is through case-study scenarios. In such a scenario, a tool is demonstrated within a test community, and the process and outcomes are recorded. Weise recounted two case studies that demonstrate the potential socio-economic value of tools provided by SWOS.

One case study comes from Burullus Lake in the Nile River Delta in Egypt. Fish farming to provide fish to the markets of Europe is a major contributor to the economy in this area. But fish farming also comes with an ecological cost: Local rivers and lakes are dewatered to provide water to the fish farms, and when the water is diverted back to rivers, the runoff contains antibiotics, excrement, and fertilizers used on the farms. This process has consequences—such as algal blooms or increased turbidity— that are viewed and measured from space. Therefore, maps created using satellite images can help set or enforce water quality management goals.

Lake Burullus on a Landsat 5 image acquired on March 29, 2005. Orange represents irrigated agriculture, blue is aquaculture, green is reed beds and salt marshes, light blue is beaches and sand plains, dark blue is open water. Image Credit: Landsat

Lake Burullus on a Landsat 5 image acquired on March 29, 2005. Orange represents irrigated agriculture, blue is aquaculture, green is reed beds and salt marshes, light blue is beaches and sand plains, dark blue is open water. Image Credit: Landsat

“What we can do from space is inform (where) this increase of green vegetation (algal blooms) or turbidity, where the wastewater comes from,” Weise said.

“We can show when it will be dewatered, at which points, and if it is according to the tax that fish farmers are paying or if it is against it. We can show the correlation (between) turbidity and the growing season or the harvest time.”

The dewatering that Weise describes refers to stretches of rivers that are seeing a decline in flow or lakes that may have dropping water levels. Identifying these areas allows policymakers to assess if changes need to be made in laws or regulation around water use or to pinpoint locations where they should meet with fish farmers to discuss current practices. In some locations, information such as this has been used to track which farmers are following regulations on their own and which farms may require stricter enforcement of regulations.

In addition to offering information on water quality, SWOS tools also can provide insight into water quantity: where and how rapidly critical water sources are being depleted. A case study of the Azraq Oasis in Jordan offers one such example. Fed by an underground aquifer that stretches from Syria to Saudi Arabia and to Iraq, Azraq has long been an isolated wellspring of life surrounded by sand-swept desert. Beginning in the 1970s, water was piped from this aquifer to provide water to Amman, the capital of Jordan, and to irrigate agriculture in the surrounding areas. By the 1990s, water levels had dropped by 39 meters, with devastating ecological consequences at the Azraq Oasis.

RapidEye satellite image of Azraq from April 4, 2010. Red depicts agricultural areas, black is basaltic stone desert, white is sand or limestone, blue is seasonally inundated areas, and the black area in the center represents reed bed, shrubs, and small permanently inundated areas around three springs. Image Credit: RapidEye

RapidEye satellite image of Azraq from April 4, 2010. Red depicts agricultural areas, black is basaltic stone desert, white is sand or limestone, blue is seasonally inundated areas, and the black area in the center represents reed bed, shrubs, and small permanently inundated areas around three springs. Image Credit: RapidEye

“As you can imagine, there was an environmental disaster,” Weise said. “Nothing was left. All the plants and animals left, and the Jordan government started an effort for (natural restoration).”

Satellite-generated maps provided an alternative. The maps depicted land cover indicating potential water sources as well as surface water reservoirs that could be used as a new source for Amman. The information also was used to better track location and timing of flooding during the year. Using the improved understanding of the water cycle that grew out of these maps, water sources less likely to have severe ecological impacts in response to use were identified. The restoration effort was able to return water to the Azraq Oasis from another source, shift water harvest for Amman to the south of Jordan to include another aquifer, and regulate agricultural irrigation.

Additionally, satellite data can provide tracking for political enforcement by revealing where irrigation contracts are respected or ignored, and for environmental monitoring by offering a comparison of previous and current conditions.

Although SWOS avoids political involvement, Weise believes the effort will have great impacts on wetland management and protection. She explains that “putting the pictures on the table” empowers groups working to protect wetlands by offering clear, visible evidence of ongoing changes in these sensitive habitats.

Case studies such as this can help build trust among users for the tools offered by SWOS, demonstrating ways that satellite information can be directly relevant for on-the-ground actions. Case studies also provide a driving motivation for the team members laboring to develop SWOS.

“If you are working with users, and you come to areas where water is not clear, nor is it available, then you know that you have to do something if you can, and we can,” Weise said. “It’s not money that can drive you to do more, it’s more success. And when people say ‘Thanks for that. You did a good job for me,’ that is more than someone can pay with money.”

This type of motivation is necessary to keep the SWOS project forging ahead. While project investigators have the benefit of learning from previous efforts, there is still a great deal to be done before the portal is completed. Goals for 2016 include establishing a mapping process for data from a suite of satellites, assessing portal and tool functionality with seven to eight test sites, and setting up infrastructure to manage quantities of data on a terabyte scale. Altogether, maps for more than 40 test sites worldwide will be produced within the initial SWOS framework to demonstrate the power of satellite-derived information for different user approaches.

“We don’t know the end of the road, and there are many ideas around how we can make work easier for remote sensors, for satellite developers, and also for the users; and it, this connection here and this project, is very good motivation to go to the office,” said Huettich.

“Working with quite a different range of people, different backgrounds, different cultures is also really interesting,” he added.

Small parts of Azraq are covered permanently by water in this photo from 2010. Image Credit: Kathrin Weise

Small parts of Azraq are covered permanently by water in this photo from 2010. Image Credit: Kathrin Weise

This diversity of partners is essential to any global monitoring project such as SWOS. The Ramsar Convention, GEO, and other international efforts to study and conserve the Earth’s ecosystems are based upon collaboration. The pool of information shared among partners allows them to address problems that overreach political boundaries and accelerate learning.

“I believe that (our work) helps to improve the situation: To make the drinking water more safe, to provide means to not waste too much water, and to have it a clean quality and so on,” Weise said. “That is really the purpose of what we are doing. But in any case we are just a very small stone in this mosaic.”

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