Rescuing planet earth from anthropogenic environmental collapse is
a tall order. The solutions to climate change and wasteful economic models lie
at the intersection of scientific development and civic participation.
But before we can improve the health of our ecosystems, we have to
understand them better than we do now. That means coming up with smarter
monitoring technologies. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the out-of-the-box
thinking that’s helping scientists — and the rest of us — get back in touch with
the health and the “rhythm” of our natural ecosystems.
Rules and regulations governing the treatment of wildlife can be
difficult to enforce. And yet, in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world,
elephants and other imperiled species are regularly killed
scores at a time — even in areas labeled with words like
“protected” and “refuge.”
The world is a big place, and it’s difficult for local authorities
to police some of these vast areas, including plains and grasslands. That’s
where drones enter the picture. You can think of them as speedy, airborne
security cameras that put an eye in the sky anywhere human conservationists and
enforcers can’t patrol in great enough numbers. The ultimate goal is to catch
would-be poachers in the act, but even when that’s not possible, they help law
enforcement track down the perpetrators and ensure they can’t repeat their
crime someplace else.
Geographic Information Systems
Sometimes, it’s the ecosystems closest to home that require the
most vigilant monitoring. Metropolitan areas and regions with highly
concentrated industrial activities are a case in point, as they tend to harbor
astonishing levels of ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), fine
particulates and other harmful substances. These are all byproducts of oil and
gas processing as well as various other industrial pursuits.
Geographic information systems (GIS) are extremely useful to
scientists and regulators who hope to address the rate at which companies
release these elements and compounds into the atmosphere. Researchers regularly observe strong
correlations between hospitalizations for asthma and heart disease and the
relative levels of sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide in the area.
Improving compliance with emissions guidelines means using GIS
technology, which functions essentially like
a real-time heat map. By mapping industrial and metro areas this way,
regulators can bring corrective action against companies that choose to flout
Researchers at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the
University of Virginia wanted to find out how changes in the climate impact the
growth and “efficiency” of vegetation — and vice versa. To answer
this question, they turned to optical sensor technology to measure
Solar-induced fluorescence is a critical part of photosynthesis,
and it’s visible on a planetary scale thanks to satellites with the right
optical technologies on board. Measuring it from the ground is more useful for
making localized observations and decisions, however — but it’s historically
been difficult to do so.
Photosynthesis is the largest CO2 “flux” in the global ecosystem.
Measuring the way changes in the climate affect photosynthesis is essential if
we want to better understand how carbon dioxide is exchanged between the
environment, plant life, and human activities.
Pioneers at the
University of Virginia are actively developing networks of ground-based optical
sensors to unlock a more complete understanding of our influence on
solar-induced fluorescence. The ultimate goal is to aid environmental
scientists in better understanding the “Gross Primary Production”
(GPP) of plant life across the globe. Gathering data this way helps farmers
better estimate crop yield, makes our weather predictions more accurate and
pinpoints areas where the efficiency of photosynthesis is compromised by human
Microphones probably sound like the least-impressive technology
named here, but they’re potentially one of our most important assets in
tracking threatened and endangered species across the globe. In the past,
scientists had to trek through forests and jungles and rely on eyewitness
accounts to draw conclusions about the health and stability of a given species.
The process had to be repeated at regular intervals to judge whether animals
were on the rebound or still declining.
Based on a proposal by
scientists from the University of Puerto Rico, this is set to change. Their
idea is deceptively simple: they want to deploy a wide network of microphones
to feed data into sound pattern recognition software. Such devices wouldn’t be
any more difficult to assemble than an MP3 player, but solar panels and
waterproof housing means they could last, and send data along, for many years.
They call this technique “bioacoustics monitoring.” It’s
not ready for primetime just yet, but scientists could soon deploy these
microphones to receive regular readings of an ecosystem’s sound profile. The
accompanying software is able to pick out the telltale signs of individual
species — such as the characteristic croaks and chirps of various frogs, many of which are
dangerously threatened by habitat destruction and climate change — and determine
how well they’re faring.
Ecological mismanagement and climate change feel like
insurmountable problems at times, but there’s reason to be hopeful. Each of
these technologies represents a new way to raise awareness about the health of
our planet. More importantly, they’re helping us pinpoint where we need to make
changes most urgently, and delivering actionable data to show the way.
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