The globe celebrated a major milestone with the 50th anniversary of landing a human on the moon. It has been a time of reflection on the wonder and inspiration that space technology brings to people of all ages. Even 50 years later, the things we can do with technology in space is nothing short of amazing. Some have referred to conserving biodiversity and stopping climate change as our next moonshot. And in a time of increasing environmental threats and declining budgets, technology is essential for wildlife conservation.
Since the first manmade object went into orbit in 1957, humans have launched 8,378 objects into space, 4,987 of which are still whizzing above our heads every single day. They represent a diverse display of some of the latest and greatest technologies that help us understand our planet and our impacts to it. Most people are familiar with the satellite imagery that is made available to view at increasingly impressive resolutions. The imagery that comes in at near-real-time has become more and more popular in wildlife conservation for everything from rapid detection of deforestation to counting recovering gray seal populations. And new applications are still being developed every day!
In the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, we are interested in the science that advances wildlife conservation and in the technologies that convey the potential. But there is much more information that we can detect from satellites than can be seen by human eyes. Many of the newest instruments in space are using technology to collect never-before-seen information about our home planet.
Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation: Tracking Habitat Destruction
The first exciting example is the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) satellite launched in December 2018. GEDI is the first satellite to use a high-resolution LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser system. Laser beams pulse down from the satellite to Earth’s surface and return with information to calculate extremely accurate distances at large scale. This results in 3-D data about the structure of the Earth, including entire plant communities. GEDI’s two-year collection of forest height and structure will improve our ability to quantify wildlife habitats. With that, we can better understand habitat degradation, carbon storage, and global biodiversity. Understanding forest structure is key to helping the many listed species that rely on it for shelter, food, and breeding, like the northern spotted owl.
Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite -2: Measuring Melting Ice
NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite -2 (ICESat-2) which uses similar laser technology to measure the elevation of ice sheets, glaciers, waterbodies and more at 10,000 laser pulses per second. This new data will help us understand where ice is retreating fastest in a warming climate and what this means for species like polar bears that depend on sea ice for hunting and raising young. Other applications may include global flood monitoring and determining quality of aquatic habitat in lakes and reservoirs. In addition, researchers are investigating how this laser derived data can be used to provide better estimates of sage grouse habitat.
Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3: Detecting Thriving Plant Life
NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) was launched in May of this year with sensors that observe wavelengths of light absorbed by carbon dioxide (CO2). Based on how CO2 concentrations vary from place to place, we can start to map emission sources as well as absorption by plants. The satellite also detects “solar-induced fluorescence” or light that plants emit just beyond the range of human eyesight. This reveals where plants are thriving and how they’re responding to a changing climate. OCO-3 is part of a bigger Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) program that funds the conversion of this data into actionable information for policy makers.
Unfortunately, CMS has been threatened with termination in both 2017 and 2019 NASA budgets. Congress, however, has steadfastly added the money back, allowing the carbon monitoring mission to press forward for now. Continued funding of these new technologies also allows us to be more innovative in our approaches for wildlife conservation. While climate and other science funding have taken a huge hit in recent years, the Trump administration is proposing investments in technology projects. If this happens, the investments could change the way that we collect, explore, and share the data that helps protect our environment.
In the Center for Conservation Innovation we will continue to develop and use technology with others in and out of Defenders for great things. That includes or work on automating detection of critical habitat disturbance, prioritizing landscapes for solar development and desert tortoise, and more!