New paper in Nature Communications says big data analyses reveal a stark state of the environment, but also bright spots
A new paper in Nature Communications says that the “big data” revolution, which encompasses techniques to capture, process, analyze and visualize large datasets in a rapid timeframe, could beneﬁt the planet if tightly coupled with ongoing sustainability efforts. But the authors warn it also reveals we’re running out of time to save environment and ourselves.
Lead author Dr. Rebecca Runting from the University of Melbourne’s School of Geography says that while we currently have an unprecedented ability to generate, store, access and analyze data about the environment, these technological advances will not help the world unless they lead to action.
“Big data analyses must be closely linked to environmental policy and management,” Dr. Runting said. “For example, many large companies already possess the methodological, technical, and computational capacity to develop solutions, so it is paramount that new developments and resources are shared timely with government, and in the spirit of open data.”
The authors noted that 2.3 million km2 (888,034 square miles) of forest was lost over the years 2000 to 2012 and that dynamic marine and coastal ecosystems have revealed similar declines. An analysis of over 700,000 satellite images shows that Earth has lost more than 20,000 km2 (7,722 square miles) of tidal flats since 1984.
Co-author Dr. James Watson from WCS and the University of Queensland said with platforms like Google Earth Engine and the capacity of satellites to track and send information quickly to computers, big data was capable of identifying eco-health risks globally.
Said Watson: “What the big data revolution has helped us understand is the environment is often doing worse than what we thought it was. The more we map and analyze, the more we find the state of the environment, albeit Antarctic ice sheets, wetlands, or forests, is dire.”
“The good news is the big data revolution can help us better understand risk. For example, we can use data to better understand where future ecosystem degradation will take place and where these interact with wildlife trade, so as to map pandemic risk,” added Watson.
Dr. Runting said big data has been pivotal in quantifying alarming spatial and temporal trends across Earth. For example, an automated vessel tracking and monitoring system is being used to predict illegal fishing activity in real-time.
Professor Watson cited a similar example. “Global forest watch has been a game change for monitoring the state of the world forests in near real time. This can help identify illegal activities and informed active enforcement of forest conservation around the world,” Watson said.
The paper also noted the ‘bright spots’ - positive environmental changes due to human intervention such as greening been seen in large expanses in China, which was driven by large scale national policies, including forest conservation and payments for restoration.