Remote Sensing Emerges as an Important Tool for Habitat and Species Conservation

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Diagram showing web services being developed at JRC that will be made available by the Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA). Credit: DOPA.

No matter where you look in the world, biodiversity is in decline. Habitats and ecosystems are threatened by development and climate change, and tens of thousands of species are at risk of extinction. Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, where more than 2 million square kilometers have been classified as protected areas: Forests, savannahs or other sites where biodiversity conservation has been established as a priority.

But how do governments and conservation organizations identify the areas that are most in need of protection? Are some areas that are important to biodiversity not yet being protected? Are conservation funds incorrectly going to less vital sites, while more important areas are being ignored? Until recently, the only way to answer some of these questions was with extensive ground surveys, which require outlays of capital, manpower and time — and which can become out-of-date almost as soon as they are completed.

Diagram showing web services being developed at JRC that will be made available by the Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA).  Credit: DOPA.

Web services being developed at JRC that will be made available by the Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA). Credit: DOPA.

But now remote sensing has emerged as an important tool to help identify the habitats most in need of conservation. By using satellite data, scientists, governments and conservation organizations can access a broader range of information which can provide a picture of the health of the planet that ground surveys alone could not achieve. Remote sensing was used in 2009 to identify potential corridors that isolated tiger populations could use to travel and connect with each other. A study published in 2012 used remote sensing to locate potential new habitats for critically endangered Cross River gorillas, which need safe territory in which to breed and expand their numbers.

Applying remotely sensed data has its challenges. Data are not always readily available, and different sources often use different terminology, format or geo spatial reference to describe the same things. Combining multiple data sets can be a time-consuming, difficult process.

Web Services

To solve these problems, the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission has developed the Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA) to help assess, monitor and forecast the status and environmental pressures faced in protected areas. The JRC partnered with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the United Nations Environment Programme, World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and other organizations to bring DOPA to life.

EuroGEOSS helped us to digitize the range information for the majority of those species. DOPA is making the data behind the tool more accessible and interoperable.”

– Ian May, head of information management for BirdLife.

What sets DOPA apart, according to GrÌ©goire Dubois, senior scientific officer at JRC, is that it combines several sources of remote sensing information and ground survey data under the common EuroGEOSS infrastructure and vocabulary and delivers access to the data through distributed web services that anyone can access online. It took three years of work to bring the first DOPA-related web services online in April 2012. “The idea is connect information sources to each other,” Dubois says. “The move toward distributed web services was a major achievement.”

To illustrate the value of web services, Dubois points to the progenitor of DOPA, the African Protected Areas Assessment Tool (APAAT), first released by JRC in 2007. The website was the first attempt to assess protected sites on a continental scale, rather than looking at individual sites. But while it was useful, APAAT was not sustainable and user-friendly. “We quickly realized that access to information was an issue,” Dubois says.

The data used in APAAT came from multiple sources. Processing that information could take days, or even weeks. Meanwhile, the data sources were not being dynamically refreshed, even though satellites were collecting new data on an ongoing basis. With DOPA, the same data queries can be pulled from up-to-date sources and completed in hours.

Although DOPA’s web services are available to anyone worldwide, Dubois says it was specifically created to serve the needs of the European Commission. “The EU is the biggest donor for worldwide conservation and development,” he explains. “Providing assets and tools for protecting the environment is critical for EU funding. Areas with greater biodiversity but greater threats should receive more funding from the EU than areas with lower biodiversity and fewer threats.”

In addition to current remote sensing data, users of DOPA’s web services will also have access to forecasting models predicting the possible effects of climate change over the next 10, 40 and 70 years. “By linking these modeling services, our users can forecast changes according to different climate change scenarios,” Dubois says.

You will be able to use eHabitat to look at the similarities between ecosystems and find corridors from one area to another. This is very important for setting up new protected areas.”

– GrÌ©goire Dubois, senior scientific officer at the Joint Research Center.

Gary Geller, an associate with the NASA Ecological Forecasting Program who provided his expertise to the DOPA project, calls the triad of ground measurements, models and remote sensed observations an essential element for conservation. “There’s no other way to get a global perspective on things,” he says. “Unlike ground measurements, satellite observations tend to be global, periodic, and relatively frequent — sometimes daily — so we can use them to fill in spatial and temporal gaps. If we had infinite resources, we could do everything on the ground. Instead, we can correlate the relatively sparse ground measurements with those from space, and so use remote sensing and models to fill in the space between those ground measurements.”

Modeling Climate Change, Species Distribution and Other Factors

One of the first organizations making use of DOPA web services is the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), a nonprofit that conducts field conservation programs in more than 50 countries around the globe. “DOPA will allow us to identify protected areas of concern at a global scale, which can subsequently help us identify species and populations which might be in trouble and where more monitoring or intervention might be needed,” says ZSL conservation biologist and research fellow Nathalie Pettorelli. Not only is this more cost-effective than relying upon ground surveys, she says the fact that the data in DOPA will regularly be updated will allow for regular re-evaluation of ongoing projects.

Pettorelli also says the inclusion of climate change forecasts is an essential element for long-term planning, especially when it comes to species translocation projects. “You don’t want to reintroduce a threatened species into an area that is about to become unsuitable for that species.”

The climate change models are available through the first DOPA web service to go online, eHabitat, which also includes data on vegetation, elevation, aridity and water bodies. By combining this information, eHabitat can be used for quantifying the uniqueness of a habitat, Dubois says.

Conceptual design of the eHabitat web service provided by DOPA.

Conceptual design of the eHabitat web service provided by DOPA.

eHabitat also delivers data on the distribution and habitats of thousands of different bird species collected by BirdLife International, mostly through ground surveys. “EuroGEOSS helped us to digitize the range information for the majority of those species,” says Ian May, head of information management for BirdLife. The organization previously supplied its data to APAAT, but “DOPA is making the data behind the tool more accessible and interoperable,” he says.

Another source of information is GBIF, which itself provides online access to thousands of biodiversity databases from all over the world. “The GBIF data index can be dynamically accessed by the DOPA through the GBIF occurrence web service to obtain reported occurrences of species within protected areas or other arbitrary bounding boxes,” says Ìäamonn ÌÒ Tuama, senior program officer for GBIF. “These data can be used to verify that a species has been observed in a particular location, thus allowing a scientist, in a process called ecological niche modeling, to predict its potential distribution — for example, due to climate change.”

A future iteration of eHabitat will provide tools related at an issue known as connectivity. Connecting two or more habitats allows different, otherwise isolated populations of a species to interact, breed and exchange genetic material, preventing a species from becoming inbred. “You will be able to use eHabitat to look at the similarities between ecosystems and find corridors from one area to another,” Dubois says. “This is very important for setting up new protected areas. It’s important to help connect existing ecosystems rather than start with areas that are already well connected.”

DOPA will eventually include web tools to look at marine ecosystems, species distributions and land cover. Dubois says the DOPA development team hopes to have the core components rolled out in time for the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-11), which will be held Oct. 8- 19 in Hyderabad, India.

— Freelance journalist John R. Platt covers endangered species for Scientific American, technology careers for Today’s Engineer and IEEE’s The Institute, and environmental news for Mother Nature Network and other publications.