What is the next wave of geospatial innovation needed for ecological research?

by Matt Ball on April 22, 2011

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In honor of Earth Day, it seems fitting to tackle the role geospatial technology plays in the greater understanding of our environment. These tools have played an unprecedented role in our comprehension of the complexity of Earth systems, but they are only scratching the surface of the types of insights that are yet to come.

Much of the promise is centered on cross-disciplinary exploration to understand environmental change. To comprehend the implications of global change requires long-term observations to convey change in time, spatial analysis to explain change in space, detailed simulations to understand the mechanisms of change, and modeling to illuminate and communicate our results. Many of these technological puzzle pieces are in place, and are being embraced by a new generation of scientists that take a more holistic approach to research.

Virtual Fieldwork

Researchers in Germany recently conducted a study that used a detailed 3D model built with LiDAR to predict the habitats of different spider species in dense woodland environments, and then verified their predictions through fieldwork. The study modeled plausible spider habitat remotely at broad scale using known indicators, using the latest tools for imagery and spatial analysis, and then tested the validity of their assumptions through fieldwork based upon their model. Because spiders are often the dominant invertebrate predator, they are a good indicator for overall ecosystem health, so in a sense this modeling and research took readings of some of the best sensors in the environment.

The pieces to replicate this type of virtual fieldwork  on a much broader scale are within reach, with greater amounts of data, more sensors with a greater depth of measurement, and computing tools that make much quicker work of analysis and model building. The advantage of this approach is that far broader geographies can be covered in less time, reaching places that can be impossible to visit. The far-greater field efficiency returns results more quickly and is easy to repeat more frequently for better measurements and to detect change. It seems plausible that multiple disciplines could be involved in such an approach for combined understanding of ecosystem health and a greater understanding of the implications and causes of systems that are out of balance.

Communicating Intelligence

To gain a more holistic view of our planet will require that specialists of all kinds band together on broader problems. The Gaia theory that the whole planet acts as a single complex system is a useful construct for this collaborative approach as it recognizes that understanding interconnections is as important as understanding individual systems. Technology provides the means to create these connections, enable greater interaction and facilitate cross-disciplinary explorations.

A system of systems approach with integrated sensors at a global scale — the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) — is the ultimate enabler for whole system explorations. A convergence of technology trends make this approach even more appealing and reachable than when it was originally launched in 2002. The growing move toward greater transparency and availability of data, more sensors collecting more measurements, and greater capacity to store and analyze the data create the means to share what we know. It’s only through sharing, visualizing, modeling and simulating our collective intelligence that we’ll gain the kind of understanding to better manage our world.

Closing the Loops

The Earth itself is a closed ecological system that exists in the vacuum of space. All the building blocks of life exist on the planet, and they aren’t going to be replaced. Within this larger system are smaller systems that we’re just beginning to understand. By applying geospatial tools to the relationships of living organisms with each other and their surroundings, we’ll understand the feedback loops that our closed ecosystem operates on.

The continuous loop of geospatial observation includes spatial data, visualization, spatial analysis, simulation, design inputs, and monitoring. The perpetual nature of this cycle for constant improvement of insight mimics the activities in the feedback loop of an ecosystem. By closely monitoring ecosystem cycles, we can help the systems adapt in a way that is responsive and least disruptive to life on our planet.

With greater urbanization, deforestation, water and air pollution, and climate change all impacting our natural world, we’re in need of new approaches that take into account the impacts of these forces and the consequences they pose to the intertwined ecosystem services that support a broad diversity of life. Geospatial technologies are a critical toolset for greater Earth understanding, and the individual tools are quite mature and effective. The next steps for the tools to have a greater impact largely revolve around broader adoption and deployment, more open and transparent research processes, as well as more cooperative data sharing.

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