Protecting Wildlife – with Satellites

As our environment changes, wildlife around the world is lost. Over one million species of plant and animal are currently under threat of extinction.

From the devastation of the Australian bushfires, with around a billion animals lost, and the poaching of rhinoceros and elephants – to the plight of the polar bears the impacts of these losses, are easy to appreciate. we can easily see these impacts. Unfortunately, these scenes, while tragic, are often only little more than indicators of a much wider problem; the proverbial “canary in the mine shaft”

The rate of loss of plants and animals is now so high that (even?)some researchers refer to this as the “the sixth mass extinction”. Even normally dreary science journals are using terms such as “biological annihilation”. This is because studies show that extinction rates of animals are now faster than at any time in the past million years.

Science, policy and politics all have their roles to play in understanding and addressing these challenges – satellites can help across all of these areas.

Monitoring Globally

Satellites have the ability to monitor climate change and pollution on a global level –measuring sea levels, detecting ice flows and providing incredible levels of detail on the earth’s atmosphere. In the weeks following the lockdowns  in February and March 2020 satellite data was immediately able to show the drop in the pollutant nitrogen dioxide city by city.,

This level of detail, combined with scale, is critical to enable scientists to monitor and predict what will happen. Climate prediction models of are dependent on the data collected from satellites.

Satellites are also an unparalleled educational tool – providing imagery of the changing landscape. It is one thing to hear about the loss of rainforest or to read that nearly 2 million acres of the amazon were lost in a year, but to see the images, combined with the data, is entirely different and can motivate people to act.

The Norwegian government has recently funded a satellite project worth over $ 40 million to monitor the world’s tropical rainforests – with data updated monthly. The results will be given away, so we can all benefit from this data

Global to Individual

Satellite imagery doesn’t just work on a global scale – it can even focus down to individual animals.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City have been using satellite imagery from commercial satellites known as “Quickbird” to track elephants, helping to protect them from poachers, pollution, and habitat loss.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in every respect, a previously unknown penguin, “supercolony”, of 1.5 million emperor penguins, was detected by satellites – they were found in the poetically named “Danger Island” in the Antarctic peninsula.

Over 2,500 satellites now orbit the earth, providing hundreds of terabytes of data every day, from weather and optical images to radar and spectral analysis every day. With computational costs plummeting due to cloud computing, we can now interpret this data faster and cheaper than ever before; therefore, there really is a reason to be optimistic in our ability to understand and act on the challenges we face.