Living Data: How Data is Helping Protect Our Biodiversity

Living Data: How Data is Helping Protect Our Biodiversity

As human activity continues to alter the health of our planet, the climate is not the only part of the environment showing the impacts. Biodiversity, or the variety of life on earth, is vital to the health of our planet and is being lost at an unprecedented rate. Any change to our delicately balanced ecosystems can result in far-reaching changes to our shared habitats. The impacts could be wide-ranging; the World Health Organization cites negative impacts on humanity’s food supplies, economic activity, and a limit on our ability to develop pharmaceuticals, just to name a few. This presents an important challenge that humanity must accept to preserve our planet’s natural beauty.

In this battle to preserve and protect threatened species, information is key. To better understand the totality of human impact on biodiversity, several institutions are collecting a wealth of data. With this data, experts will be better equipped to remediate our impacts and design ways of living more harmoniously with our environment. The loss of biodiversity is an impending threat, and data enable us to fight back.

What kind of data?

Like with most complex problems, a diverse pool of data is key to understanding the loss of biodiversity. Several conservation groups collaborated to publish a paper reviewing the state of data collected on biodiversity to establish a starting baseline.

“There is all this data out there that conservationists could be using to help them monitor biodiversity,” said Dr. PJ Stephenson, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Species Monitoring Specialist Group, in an interview with RE: Wild. “[Yet] many people don’t know where to find it and how to use it. It seems crazy, but no one seems to have brought together a summary of global data sources before,” Stephenson said.

One of the organizations contributing data to this collection is NASA. Using satellites and other technology, the agency collects data about temperature, location, moisture, light reflection, and others. These data are the starting point for science’s understanding of the threat to a given species. The number one cause of loss of biodiversity is loss of habitat, and being able to see long-term changes in temperature or water content can help identify stressors on species and their environment.

What can this data tell us?

Databases, like the ones compiled by the UN and NASA, are critical banks of knowledge for the scientific community that can help create action plans to save a species from the threat of extinction.

For example, NASA used location data from their satellites to study and look at the migration patterns of western chimpanzees in Liberia. Chimpanzee habitats overlap with sites of human industry, exposing them to humans and eroding their remaining habitat. The work was compiled in a paper published in Diversity and Distributions, an ecological journal. It highlights the location data as a critical aspect of the study. The authors emphasize that surveying critically endangered animals and identifying protection priority areas is a vital starting point, neither of which would be possible without GPS data.

Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service leverages satellite image data to study the habitats of the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest over the past 30 years. The Forest Service can identify vegetation, water, and bare land via the images. Using this information, researchers create maps to understand how industries threaten the owl habitat. While this effort is useful in understanding historic trends, the spotted owl is still endangered.

“The spotted owl population is still going down, and the main culprit is now the barred owl,” said Raymond Davis, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. For Davis, more data will be the driving force moving forward. “We need to continue to use remote sensing to track the status and trends of spotted owl habitat, but we also need to factor in other variables like barred owl presence.”

Beyond insights about animals themselves, data can also provide deeper insights into how to best manage land to promote and protect the creatures that live on it. UCLA is using remote sensing data from NASA to help the BLM manage their lands, giving them the information and tools to make proper decisions for the health of those ecosystems. Researchers for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii are using this data to predict disease outbreaks in coral reefs, and NASA monitors evapotranspiration via a radiometer to get an insight into otherwise invisible plant stress.

Our data, our world

These data sets are crucial to cutting-edge research that can help protect our fragile ecosystems and sharing that kind of digital information is an important next step. Recognizing this, many of the data collected by NASA are already part of the international UN Biodiversity Lab, which seeks to democratize biodiversity data, empower policymakers, and inform stakeholders with open data. This means the data that is collected and organized are directly supporting progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the UN, many of which directly speak to preserving our biodiversity, their habitats, and the overall health of our planet.

On a smaller scale, a loss of biodiversity can radically alter the life of human beings around the world. A lack of harmony with nature threatens people’s livelihoods and housing security. It can exacerbate the scarcity of vital plants and animals that we rely on for everyday goods. It even endangers global health by promoting the resurgence of infectious agents, causing spikes in illnesses like Lyme disease or West Nile virus. These changes present real dangers for people globally, threats to our most precious and vulnerable necessities.

The takeaway is that the data sets are advancing the world in the right direction; to protect our planet, the creatures that we share it with, and to ensure we have the knowledge needed to make this a better world. In other words, data is helping us work toward the best possible version of Earth. When humanity focuses on climate action, our potential and capacity for action are boundless, and the data we collect ensure that nothing stands in our way.


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