Most of us are deeply concerned by the recent news of dramatic changes involving the Amazon rainforest, Greenland ice sheets, loss of bird species and massive population declines in bees. We wake up to headlines about massive fires in Australia and weather extremes.
Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, where we have seen good progress in our efforts to restore our ecosystem, we continue to face daunting issues like sea level rise, pollution, land use change and invasive species.
Fortunately, the future of the conservation movement and use of technology provides great hope that we can address these issues and save the planet.
How can I possibly say that with all of this terrible news? Because I have seen how technology is democratizing conservation and empowering people to act.
Take for example a remarkable project from the Amazon rainforest: A study released by Rainforest Foundation US and its partners shows how near-real time deforestation data empowered indigenous community members to report threats quickly and achieve “measurable reduction of deforestation.” The alerts were delivered by the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery Group using a field application from Global Forest Watch.
This is the democratization of conservation, empowering people everywhere to protect the environment where they live. It is literally up to us now — you and me.
The Internet, satellites, aerial imagery, smartphones, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are putting the power to protect the environment into the hands of everyone. These tools provide high-resolution, near-real time information about what is happening on the ground and in the water.
This technology is having a profound impact on efforts to protect natural systems. And, it has effectively leveled the playing field of knowledge for individual landowners, indigenous peoples, nonprofit organizations, corporations and government agencies.
Scientists have known for decades how land use change and deforestation negatively impact animals, plants and ecosystems. But until relatively recently, the tools by which scientists could monitor natural areas and inform the public about their observations were limited.
Vitally important data, such as the National Land Cover Dataset, was collected by government agencies and their corporate contractors to be released every five to seven years. By the time we could identify a priority, such as a large contiguous forest that connected previously protected areas, it had already been destroyed for the purpose of development, resulting in the loss of biological diversity and ecosystem function.
Now, the public can quickly obtain recent, highly accurate observation data and analyze it to great effect.
Conservationists can swiftly provide striking evidence to advance their cause, a quantum leap for defenders of the environment.
The Chesapeake Conservancy, where I work, has been relentlessly leveraging this opportunity in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Our Conservation Innovation Center recently analyzed the change in tree canopy for Anne Arundel County, MD, with 1-meter resolution aerial imagery from 2007 to 2017 — and it showed a startling 5,500-acre loss of trees. With this analysis and strong public support (81% of county residents, according to a poll by the Arundel Rivers Federation), County Executive Steuart Pittman worked with the County Council to pass a major revision in their forest conservation law. Howard County quickly followed suit with even tougher changes.
The famed conservationist Aldo Leopold once remarked that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”
Fortunately, as a result of new technology, this is changing. It comes just in time, as there is widespread recognition of detrimental changes that are happening to the entire planet as a result of human activity.
As a first step to address the climate and biodiversity crisis, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM) have introduced resolutions to protect 30% of our nation’s land and ocean by 2030, which have been co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and others.
To achieve this admirable and ambitious result, data from individual drones and global monitoring efforts, such as those of Global Forest Watch or Microsoft’s forthcoming planetary computer, will be used to democratize conservation.
When this knowledge is put in the hands of individuals, nonprofits and governments, it will save the planet.