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Green Planet

Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources

MD Staff

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Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.

Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.

The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?

“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.

However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.

To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.

Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.

Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.

Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.

However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.

With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.

“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.

In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

Raging Oceans, Dying Pollinators, And Then The Virus

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

If the coronavirus is life-threatening, and almost all of the USA is in varying levels of lockdown, the speed of its arrival and impact should at least remind us of the fragility of life — not just for our own species but on the planet itself.  Of course, Donald Trump disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense.  Set up after the Ebola scare, its job was to deal exactly with the type of threat we are facing; that is, to prepare for, lead  and coordinate resources to deal quickly and effectively with the emergency — its absence is yet another reason for the White House’s lackluster response.    

Then there is man-induced climate change.  The Antarctic hit a record 64.9F (18.3C) last month surpassing the previous high of 63.5F (17.5C) set in 2015.  Three days later on February 9th, the same measuring research station experienced an astounding 69.35F (20.75C) (livescience.com).  Perhaps it is to be expected when we are pumping CO2 to record levels in the atmosphere.  Current measurements are 413 ppm (Feb., 2020), a rise of 100ppm over 1950 figures (climate.nasa.gov/evidence/). 

Global warming is also blamed for hot Australian summers and the deadly forest fires in South Australia fueled by drought and extreme heat.  Most distressingly, these destroyed the entire habitats of several animal species and cost the lives of an estimated billion animals. 

One bright note is a stand of conifers (the Wollemi Pine) dating back to the dinosaurs has been saved through the extraordinary efforts of firefighters who dropped water and flame retardant from airplanes into the single canyon where they exist.  Millions of years ago, they were common across the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. 

Greenland and Antarctica are now losing ice at a six-times faster rate than in the 1990s raising sea levels and threatening coastal areas.  The rise of 17.8 mm since 1992 has been 60 percent due to Greenland and the rest to Antarctica (Nature, Dec 10, 2019).  Scientists now expect an extra 17mm (6.7 inch) rise in sea levels above current projections by 2100, and massive flooding of coastal areas, already experiencing very early signs (Greenland and Antarctica Ice Melt — BBC).   But that is small potatoes in comparison with the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. 

This massive glacier has retreated 5 km (about 3 miles) in the last 22 years reports a new study appearing in Geophysical Research Letters (Science Daily, March 23, 2020).  From 1979 to 2017, it has lost a cumulative 268 billion tons.  Of particular concern to researchers is the ground surface underneath which renders the glacier more susceptible to global-warming collapse.  This vast ice sheet has the potential by itself to raise sea levels by 1.5 meters (5 feet).

While global warming is causing a speedup of many ocean currents, an anomaly is the consequence of Greenland ice melt reaching the Atlantic at the origins of the Gulf Stream current.  Reducing salinity, it impacts its driver, namely, the sinking salt water (Science, Feb. 7, 2020, p.612) weakening the current — its  beneficence accounting for the relatively benign winters in Britain and Ireland and extending as far north as Iceland, Norway and southern Sweden

At the same time, an analysis of data from the Argo array, some 4000 floats deployed across the globe to collect data, indicates an acceleration in currents, particularly in the tropics and the Southern Ocean (Science Advances, Feb 5, 2020).  Global warming is the likely cause spurring ocean winds to speed currents, although proof awaits more data collection.  A speed-up of currents and rising sea levels paints a picture of a rising, raging sea threatening coastal communities (National Geographic, Oct, 15, 2019) that have been popularized by developers in living memory.

The ecosystem is also threatened in other ways, particularly through the demise of pollinator species — on whom we, too, depend for our necessary crops.  A recent paper (Science February 7, 2020, p.626) reports widespread decline in bumble bee populations in North America and Europe.  Warming temperature is the likely culprit.  A temperature rise beyond the tolerable limits for bumble bees necessitates migration, often to areas that had been too cold for them before but have warmed up now to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, the rate of extirpation has exceeded that of colonization causing widespread decline.  The resulting consequences to plant species deprived of the ecosystem services of this pollinator are clearly unfavorable — if not disastrous — but have yet to be surveyed.

Meanwhile, wild bee species are in decline worldwide.  A halving from an estimated 6700 species in the 1950s to a shocking 3400 in the 2010s was reported in Science News (January 22, 2020).  While previous bee studies have addressed declining populations, the evidence collected had been limited to industrially developed Europe and North America.  The significance of the new research is its global scope.

In Thailand, for example, the ground nesting bee, Megachili bicolor, is fast losing habitat to expanding urbanization and agriculture.

With more scientists entering the field, the total number of bees observed by them has increased as one would expect.  But sadly, the number of species recorded keep plummeting on most continents.  The exception has been Australia where bee species first rose from 300 to 500 in the 2000s.  Then in the 2010s they fell back to 300.  What was once seen as a trend only in advanced countries is now global, and thousands of species have become either very rare or extinct. 

Bees and other insects like butterflies are vital in that they pollinate 75 percent of our most important crops.  Now butterflies are also under threat.  The monarchs in the US are the victims of herbicides like glyphosate, and global warming upsets their seasonal migration patterns.  They are also losing habitat, the loss estimated at 165 million acres in the US reports the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the two migratory populations of monarchs, the western population numbered 1.2 million in the 1990s and the eastern about a billion.  These numbers have dropped drastically to a critical 30,000 in the west  and 225 million in the east.  Since 2018 when these winter counts were taken, the numbers in the west have declined further this year to a little over 29,000.

Now we have the coronavirus giving modern humans an intimate foretaste of their ecological vulnerability.  As it is easily transmissible, the situation can turn quickly into an out-of-control pandemic.  If  it affects 70 percent, as an expert recently predicted (CBS News), of the world’s population of about 8 billion, it will infect 5.6 billion people.  Assuming a 1 percent death rate, which is on the low side of recent estimates, it results in 56 million fatalities — not unlike WW2.  The same figures applied to the US yield 2.3 million deaths.      

One might be forgiven for wondering if it is not Mother Earth’s Gaian response to destructive human activity.  Could it even be just the initial onslaught?  Now that is a frightening thought. 

Authors’ Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on Counterpunch.org

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Green Planet

Writing a greener story in Asia and the Pacific

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Rising economic prosperity and poverty reduction may not tell the whole story of progress in Asia and the Pacific. Telling signs in the natural world recount a narrative that is far from complete. This year has been particularly affected by the COVID-19 global health pandemic, with devastating impacts on our health and the economy. Yet, building on its achievements, the region must continue its drive towards a sustainable conclusion.

There have been promising developments as we turn the page to a critical Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The region is on track to achieve targets on eradicating income poverty. The prevalence of undernourishment has dropped from 17 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent in 2017. The proportion of the population using basic sanitation services has increased from 48 per cent to almost 75 per cent since 2000.

Nonetheless, we will miss the mark on all 17 SDGs by 2030 unless we quicken the uneven pace across each subregion. The next chapters of progress we write must not only be faster, but also fight for higher quality of life and a healthy environment.

Most strikingly, there is a lack of progress on environmental goals across all subregions. Data from the 2020 edition of the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific show that we are neither sustainably managing the rich, precious natural resources in our region nor taking adequate action to combat climate change. Myopic consumption practices have led to marine pollution and irreversible damage to ecosystems. Air pollution has clouded the skies, with the Asia-Pacific region emitting half the world’s greenhouse gas. Disasters are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

The earth continues to warn us that human progress cannot come at the expense of environmental degradation. As we make gains, it is our responsibility to advocate for measures that protect the planet. To urgently improve waste management, increase resilience against natural disasters and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

In addition to environmental considerations, advancements in the region’s GDP growth are also challenging us to expand normative thinking on poverty. Although the region is making good progress on SDG targets related to economic growth, one-dimensional assessments are no longer enough. Mounting evidence reveals that the region is likely to miss all measurable SDG targets related to other forms of poverty, hunger, gender equality and reduced inequalities. This means that our ambitions must be far-reaching and informed by the complex realities of multi-dimensional poverty.

Thankfully, countries in Asia and the Pacific have made resolute commitments to sprint toward the 2030 finish line. Momentum for the future has been established by substantial groundwork. Existing efforts have laid policy foundations for a more favorable outlook in areas like access to clean energy and education. Progress towards the SDGs is not a linear process, but there is an emerging basis for acceleration in the coming years.

By speeding up efforts, the region can balance its fast-growing economy with prosperity for people and planet. The total capacity of the region to produce renewable electricity has increased almost fivefold since 2000, faster than any other region in the world. Many countries have adopted clean and environmentally sound technologies to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacturing sector.
Recent trends also given hope for an acceleration of progress on several goals in the coming decade. Increases in labour productivity, access to quality education and resource flow for development all provide examples that the Asia-Pacific region has built a basis for acceleration in many targets.

While we have harmed the planet along the way, I believe we also have the power to reverse negative trends and fight for the environment, as it has provided for us. If the region doubles its concerted efforts, the future may be brighter for target areas where progress has been slow.

The extensive efforts required means we cannot do it alone. Uneven gains across subregions convey that cooperation is more important than ever. We must rally the region to collectively move toward an enduring vision of development that protects natural resources, particularly the ocean, and fights climate change. Listening to the data and supporting its availability will help create integrated policies fundamental to reversing negative trends. Revitalizing partnerships at all levels and across all stakeholders will enable us to implement them.

With decisive action, the region has the capacity to achieve a strong finish by 2030. During an unprecedented global health emergency and increasing economic uncertainty, let us not lose sight of the future. The determination and rich resources of the region can help us overcome COVID-19 and beyond. Together, we can write a story of Asia and the Pacific which is one of success for every aspect of nature and society.

UN ESCAP

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Green Planet

Covid-19 crisis and Earth Hour: An opportunity to reflect on the deteriorating health of the planet

Martin Noponen

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Earth Hour 2020 on Saturday 28 March presents a unique opportunity this year: shining a light on biodiversity loss and climate change during the coronavirus outbreak. All of us will be able to share our voices and concern for nature by observing Earth Hour from home – to ensure social distancing – turning off all non-essential lights at 8:30 p.m. By doing so, we draw attention to the climate and biodiversity crisis globally. Meantime, the coronavirus pandemic crisis which should keep most of us at home also offers a chance to reimagine our approaches to managing and valuing natural resources in the future. 

In the past months, we all witnessed shocking news about the devastating fires in Australia and the Amazon, and these were just two of the most recent examples of the crisis we are facing. 2019 has been a critical and unprecedented year for nature as global carbon emissions reached unparalleled levels, the artic continued to melt, and global temperature rise set new records on every continent.   

It is ironic to think, then, that nature and the new coronavirus pandemic are closely interconnected. Our voracious demand for crops, timber and other resources has led, and still leads to the degradation and destruction of entire landscapes, causing disruptions to natural ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. This encroachment into natural frontiers means that animal-human interactions now exist which did not previously, enabling pathogens formerly exclusive to animal species to jump to a new, unsuspecting, human host. It is now well understood that many emerging infectious diseases, such as the novel Covid-19, originate from animals. Habitat destruction further exacerbated by climate change and fuelled by economic growth is, therefore, providing the perfect opportunity for new disease emergence. 

Likewise, scientists and others have long been alerting us to the climate crisis, and in particular, its need for a swift and effective response. A fundamental piece of the puzzle in that response is tackling deforestation and restoring forests. 

Yet the climate emergency hasn’t received the same sort of urgent and immediate response which the new coronavirus emergency has. For instance, many of the world’s biggest brands are set to fail to meet their 2020 deforestation commitments, despite making clear their ambition for sustainable supply chains. 

In stark parallel, we’ve been jolted into almost immediate action by continuous information flows about the coronavirus outbreak, with its effects on entire countries and their populations serving as a signal for action to governments and individuals, even if they themselves weren’t yet experiencing its effects. 

When facing the new coronavirus crisis, everyone has a role to play – governments have had to quickly develop and implement new policies; many organisations have had to transition into remote ways of working; and individual actions have, more than ever before, been crucial for the wider public good, with individuals being forced to completely change their daily routines in an effort to protect those in high-risk groups. 

It has been very encouraging to see how communities, industry and individuals have rallied together over the last weeks to support each other, focusing on the things that really matter in order to maintain some sense of order and joint ambition to tackle the crisis. 

Perhaps the global system had reached breaking point, like a computer system overloading with processes running alongside each other without being able to connect and coordinate. Perhaps it was time to shut down and reboot.  Whatever the reason, we should see this as a chance to rethink and reimagine our approaches to managing natural resources. How we interact. What really is of value to us. It is time to pause and reflect on how to be the best stewards for a healthy and resilient planet. 

We all question what the long-term economic effects of the pandemic will be. Early analyses from China show a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But will efforts to revive the global economy reverse this effect and accelerate the destruction of natural ecosystems – and in turn climate change – in a race to make up for the economic losses endured? Experts are warning that efforts to combat climate change could be jeopardised by compromising global investments in clean energy and weakening industry environmental goals such as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, it will be key for governments, industry and the private sector to enact green growth policies and realise the interconnectivity of human, economic and natural systems that determine planetary health. 

We have all the necessary tools to help support our planets tenuous life support system which is untenably our own: to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and not just halt but reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss. So, let’s reimagine how society works, from human interaction to political and economic infrastructure, and from natural resource management and ecosystem protection to life on land. 

As Landscape News reported recently: “Procrastination, short-termism and scientific denial are the hallmarks of our inaction on climate change – but the coronavirus provides an opportunity for us to kick those long-standing habits.” 

As our life on land navigates an uncertain period, we must learn to replicate the same responses to Coronavirus to the climate emergency.  This crisis must remind us of the delicate balance within the natural world so that we can turn this systemic threat into an opportunity to ensure our own wellbeing.  

A version first published in Business Green 20 March 

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