Geospatial Data Is Revolutionizing Conservation

While modern technology is rarely viewed positively by environmental advocates, there's no denying that it's a fundamental part of today's society. The digital device you're using and the internet it depends on are a testament to it.

But what if I told you modern technology could also play a potential role in improving the efficacy of global conservation efforts? Whether it's camera traps programmed with AI algorithms or automated map-making drones, modern technology is being applied to every part of the conservation field. Despite the well-known environmental impacts of many technologies, some of them can be used for good. 


Save The Redwoods League

The Redwoods are an international icon and a bucket-list location for nature lovers everywhere. They’re the tallest trees in the world, and as someone who once lived amongst them, I’ll tell you that they never stop being impressive. Despite this, very few people know that only about 4% of the original old-growth Redwoods remain today after they were devastated by logging in the late 20th century.

Save the Redwoods League is an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring these wondrous ecosystems. Like many organizations, they regularly utilize a set of tools known as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to plan, implement, and monitor their conservation efforts. These tools allow them to analyze spatial data in ways cartographers could have only dreamed of decades ago.

By analyzing data on property boundaries, cultural sites, waterways, fire history, habitat corridors, and carbon sequestration levels, Save The Redwood League can strategically locate acquisition and restoration opportunities. For example, by using a special form of light-based radar known as LiDAR, they can identify individual old-growth trees that require priority for conservation. Indeed, LiDAR was utilized to discover the tallest tree in the world, located in a secret location within Redwood National Park.

Recently, Save The Redwood League has teamed up with Redwood National Park, California State Parks, and the local Yurok and Hoopa tribes to implement conservation-based treatments on more than 20,000 acres of second-growth forest. A large part of this includes thinning to promote healthy forest growth and resilience to wildfires, but also other measures to improve salmon habitat. GIS is used in every step of the project, whether it's to analyze remote sensing data or that which forestry experts collected in the field.


The MEGA Lab

Coral reefs are complex, beautiful habitats that play important roles in marine ecosystems. For researchers, they have always been of interest, and today even more so, as they are heavily threatened by human activity and climate change. Yet, the underwater nature of coral reefs poses many challenges to researchers who seek to study them.

That is why the MEGA (Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis) Lab, located at the Mokupāpapa Marine Discovery Center in Hilo, HI, is utilizing cutting-edge technologies to help them overcome the challenges that come with studying coral reef ecosystems. One of their current projects is creating highly detailed 3D reconstructions of these underwater habitats. These aren't only visually stunning, but they can be very valuable to help understand and monitor the state of coral reefs.

For example, with their 3D models, researchers can closely monitor the conditions of coral reefs over time. They can track the health of corals and potentially detect early signs of stress, disease, or bleaching. They can also use the tool to quickly conduct surveys that reveal the diversity of corals within a given reef. In addition to this, the MEGA Lab is utilizing this same technology to make archaeological discoveries of cultural importance that may have been hidden underwater for centuries.

Currently, they are using this technology to help protect a coral reef from the construction of an aluminum judging tower proposed to be built in Tahiti for the Paris 2024 Olympic surfing competition. Through their photogrammetry technology, the team identified over 1,000 corals from 20 different species within the 322 square meter area threatened by the construction. They released a public statement warning officials about these damages, estimating that the construction could cause over one million dollars in damages to the reefs.


Lord Of The Trees

If the name of this organization sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, that's because what they're doing certainly resembles it. This Australia-based organization has developed technology to conduct reforestation on new scales with the help of specially trained tree-planting drones. You heard that right, tree-planting drones.

They plan to use military-sized drones to plant trees at a rate that supersedes any contemporary tree-planting methods. The organization claims that with the help of drones, they are capable of planting 400,000 trees in just 12 hours. These drones aren't just planting at random either. The organization utilizes state-of-the-art technology to ensure the efficacy of its resources.

For example, their drones are programmed to create detailed elevation models that precisely map terrain features. These can then be analyzed together with information on vegetation types, soil composition, hydrology, and other ecological variables. Utilizing this data, they can make informed decisions about where to plant specific tree species that are more likely to succeed within specific micro-climates. These drones then develop an automated flight path that will effectively plant specific tree species in the desired locations.

Oh, and if you're wondering, these drones aren't planting living trees. Instead, they plant specially engineered "seed-pods" that contain a living seed along with additional protection and nutrients. They say this seed pod improves the germination, survival, and growth rate of the trees, with a success rate of over 75%. While they are still in a preliminary phase of their project, it's going to be interesting to follow their implementations and successes.


Will Technology Revolutionize Conservation?

In conclusion, there is no doubt that technology has already revolutionized conservation. Tools like GIS, which were once considered cutting-edge innovations, are now standard tools used by almost anyone involved in conservation. Whether drones and sophisticated 3D models will also become a standard practice for researchers and conservation groups is hard to predict, but there is no doubt they will likely be present. While technology won't solve all the complex problems involved with conserving our planet's biodiversity, its integration into efforts holds a lot of promise for improving our ability to protect the planet.