View from space guides conservation on Earth

A call for conservation scientists, remote sensing specialists, and space agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA), to collaborate on building global observing systems for biodiversity, has been co-authored by UNEP-WCMC and published today (22 July 2015) in Nature Communications.

The goal of this collaboration is to ensure that the monitoring of global biodiversity status and trends becomes systematic, operational, standardized, and routine. A satellite-driven tracking and reporting system such as this would reinforce global efforts to reverse the loss of biological diversity.

Last year an evaluation study, led by UNEP-WCMC, on the usefulness of Earth Observation to track progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, revealed its benefits for providing regular and repeatable observation, as well as a cost-effective option for monitoring remote and inaccessible areas. Furthermore, satellite images can quickly reveal areas of change, making them suitable for tracking progress towards regional and global conservation targets.

Satellite imagery from major space agencies is now freely available but there are some challenges to creating actionable information for policymakers from these images. These challenges centre around how satellite images are acquired and how they need to be made more comparable over space and time; how collaborative projects between space agencies, remote sensing experts and conservation scientists are rare and short-lived; establishing biodiversity conservation as a developing area for Earth Observation in order to attract investment; and how we need to identify leaders to guide these efforts.

Work on overcoming these challenges is well underway as the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON) has already held a series of workshops on identifying the essential requirements of the biodiversity community for variables which can be monitored from space. These include but are not limited to ecosystem function variables such as: vegetation productivity; trait variables such as plant leaf traits; and structural variables including vegetation height and ecosystem distribution.

Changes in these variables over space and time can indicate disturbance and pressures when they are outside their natural expected variation, and can indicate risk to the survival of floral and faunal biodiversity in areas undergoing change. Such information is crucial to Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity as they seek to understand where, when and how biodiversity is being threatened, and what they can do to mitigate likely future impacts of these threats.

Satellite image of northwest Sardinia

This image over part of the Italian island of Sardinia comes from the very first acquisition by the Sentinel-2A satellite. The varying shades of red and other colours across the entire image indicate how sensitive the multispectral instrument is to differences in chlorophyll content. This is used to provide key information on plant health and, for this image, the brighter reds indicate healthier vegetation. More information is available here. Copyright Copernicus data (2015)/ESA

Publication information

Skidmore, AK et al. (2015) Environmental science: Agree on biodiversity metrics to track from space. Nature 523, 403–405

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