To Save the Earth, Look to the Skies

by Anupriya Nagarathnam on February 18, 2014

TED Talk: Greg Asner on Ecology from the Air

“How can we save what we don’t understand?”

That is the deceptively straightforward question ecologist Greg Asner poses in his TED talk about the applications of new technologies in global ecosystem conservation efforts. Founder of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), Asner and his team of pilots and fellow ecologists developed an aircraft-based system of environmental exploration and analysis to offer geographical and biochemical insights about the regions of the world that are most at risk for environmental destruction—areas heretofore unexplored by modern scientists. After all, the best conservation programs take into account the natural composition of a given ecosystem, and preserve the balance of organisms and abiotic factors that already coexist in the environment. Though the CAO aircraft is equipped with several tools to collect these new observations, there are two technological innovations in particular that are already yielding significant and long-lasting positive outcomes for environmental policy. The first major tool in the CAO is an imaging spectrometer that can record the chemical composition of every individual plant below as the plane flies overhead. These chemical composition maps can also be used to identify the particular species to which each plant belongs. The second is a set of lasers emitted from the bottom of the plane that can scan the surface of the terrain below and generate a high resolution, 3D image. When the outputs of these two tools are combined, the result is a 3D map that allows scientists to analyze the dimensions, chemical composition, and distribution of organisms in the scanned area…without taking a single measurement in person.

Some people might wonder whether aerial data is valid enough to actually supplement environmental policies aimed to better terrestrial conservation efforts. However, these doubts are unfounded. Beyond offering a more comprehensive foundation of ecological knowledge on which to base new policies, efficiency is the single greatest advantage that Asner and his aerial research tools offer the scientific community. The goal of Asner’s research was not to demonstrate that physical exploration of high-risk environments is not needed to shape conservation policies. Instead, Asner contends that the observations recorded by tools in the CAO can offer a safe way for researchers to narrow down the most problematic areas of certain environments. This would make it easier to create focused, in-person expeditions to further examine those areas and direct limited resources to fund specifically tailored conservation projects in those regions.

Already, the simple technique of scanning then rescanning the same at-risk ecological region a few months later has proven to be an invaluable resource. Of particular note, one of Asner’s most prominent examples of this technique is the ability to use changes in color patterns on carbon stock maps of Peru and Panama to keep track of how deforestation is spreading outwards in certain hotspots. In addition, since the chemical composition of plants can be used to identify what species they are, Asner’s team has used rescans of the same landscape to analyze growth rates of different plants and even pinpoint what tree species African elephants are most likely to trample and tear down—information that is already being used by park and conservation authorities in Africa to develop strategies that curb this destruction by elephants. In another instance of the rescans at work, during the Amazon “mega-drought” of 2010, species composition data generated by the CAO tools demonstrated the migration of several Amazonian species towards the Andes mountain range, in order to avoid the rapidly increasing repercussions of climate change. In retrospect, monthly or even annual species composition scans would have been very helpful in drawing attention to rapid declines in currently endangered animal species— like the Saiga antelope, the Northern white rhino, and the Orangutan —while enough organisms remained to address the problem of decreasing population size (Pickerell, 2006). Furthermore, later carbon stock scans closer to the Amazon riverbed revealed “pock marks,” allowing Asner and his team to alert local authorities to extensive and illegal gold mining activity in that region.

These examples represent only a fraction of the potential uses for the existing CAO technology, and Asner and his team are continuing to develop innovative applications for the data they collect. So in response to Asner’s original question, there is no way we can effectively save our global environment if we do not take the necessary steps to first observe and understand it. As Asner demonstrates, the technology already exists to conduct preliminary explorations of these at-risk and previously unexamined environments. The next stage, however, requires more scientists to be trained to use this technology so it can be put into wider use among conservation research teams around the world. Asner himself sums up the future of conservation technology best in the closing remarks of his TED talk: “technology is absolutely critical to managing our planet, but even more important is the understanding and wisdom to apply it.” Thus, the only way to guarantee the continued success of this technology as a boon to environmental policy is to train a new generation of researchers to continually push the boundaries of how this technology can be applied to strategic conservation planning.

TED Talk- “Greg Asner: Ecology from the air”

Article- “Top 10: Conservation successes and failures” by John Pickrell

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