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Eyes in the Sky

IN REMOTE AMAZONIA, Indians in red loincloths are carrying Global Positioning System (GPS) units that pinpoint the location of the newest illegal gold mines. In southern Africa, illiterate Kalahari Bushmen are entering field notes about the threatened black rhinoceros into Personal Digital Assistants equipped with GPS software, by pushing iconic buttons that depict hoof prints, numbers, and animal behavior. Soon, when poachers enter protected areas such as Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo, rangers will receive an instantaneous alert, with the poachers’ exact coordinates and direction of travel.

Meanwhile, biologists are putting tracking transmitters onto everything from dragonflies to great white sharks, and scientists are taking comprehensive surveys of the world’s forests, deserts, river systems, glaciers, and coral reefs.

All of this is made possible by a cluster of technologies once affordable only by government agencies and large corporations: satellite imagery, remote sensing, and computer-based mapping (more formally called a geographic information system, or GIS). In the past decade, the cost of these tools has dropped sharply. The price of a Landsat satellite image from NASA, for instance, has fallen to $600 from $4,400. Other tools, notably Google Earth, are free, as is much of the research being done with the help of satellites by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and universities.

The result has been an explosion of knowledge. Scientists can monitor changes in forest cover, Arctic ice, and animal populations. NGOs and ordinary citizens are finding ways to detect environmental crimes such as illegal logging, poaching, unregulated gold mining, and other depredations. In field biology, satellite tags have added immensely to knowledge about creatures that are hard to study, such as whales, mountain lions, and migratory species of all kinds. Collection of field data has been transformed by combining laptops or even Palm Pilots with satellite uplinks. The technology also gives scientists a new perspective across both time and space.

“These technologies have revolutionized the gathering, planning, and sharing of conservation information, both for organizations and for governments,” says Susan Minnemeyer, GIS lab manager for the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C.

The new technologies offer new ways to survey, monitor, and manage natural resources. For instance, a group of international researchers is using high-resolution images from NASA satellites to create the first survey of the world’s tropical coral reefs.

“We don’t really know whether there are 100,000 square kilometers or 400,000 square kilometers of coral reef environments, because there are no accurate maps,” says Frank Muller-Karger, lead principal investigator for the Millennium Coral Reef Mapping Project and dean of the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Our preliminary finding is that people have overestimated the number of surface coral reefs around the world.” Another surprise: less than 2 percent of the reefs are in protected areas.

This new, wide-angle view alters the picture in several ways. Living reefs are crucial habitats for many sea creatures, and they serve as nurseries and feeding grounds for many others. They are also important to humans for fishing, boating, and tourism. When reefs suffer or decline, so does everything that depends on them. If there are fewer reefs than expected, and if almost none of them are protected, conservation managers need to take note. Accurate information leads to a clearer picture of how fishing, boating, agricultural runoff, and sewage discharge are affecting reefs over time, says Muller- Karger, and hence, to better management.

James Churnside, a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colo., combined satellite imagery, remote sensing, and airplanes to locate destructive ocean debris—mostly giant rolls of fishing nets—that ensnares turtles, whales, seals, sea birds, and other creatures. NOAA personnel often don’t find the nets until they get caught on reefs, where waves and wind turn the nets into scouring pads.

In a pilot project, Churnside used ocean circulation models based on satellite data to identify areas where wind and currents were most likely to deposit debris. Airplanes with sensing equipment flew transects and received constant updates via satellite on changing conditions. It worked. Churnside is applying similar techniques to improve fisheries management, using LIDAR, a kind of radar. LIDAR shoots a laser pulse into the water, where it scatters and bounces off whatever is there, such as fish, and then returns with the information, which software interprets. By coupling the results with satellite imagery, Churnside can design more effective aerial surveys for specific fish.

Satellite technology can reveal the remote, the hidden, even the seemingly invisible. In 2005, a team led by Gregory Asner of Stanford and the Carnegie Institution showed that if a tree falls in the forest, high-resolution satellite imagery can detect it. Images of five states in the Brazilian Amazon, spanning 1999 to 2002, were so detailed that Asner’s group could spot small gaps in the canopy and count the number of valuable single trees, such as mahogany, cut by loggers. “Selective logging” is hard to detect and hadn’t been included in data about deforestation. Asner’s group calculated that spot-cutting doubled the usual figure, because loggers typically damaged or toppled up to 30 trees while taking out one of high value.

Last year, after studying seven years of high-resolution satellite imagery of the Peruvian Amazon, Asner’s group reported that unprotected areas were 18 times more likely to suffer deforestation than protected areas, which accounted for just 1 to 2 percent of “forest disturbance” in the region. Indigenous territories also showed considerably less destruction. Together, the satellite findings make clear that protecting forests and giving land title to indigenous peoples can curb deforestation.

Satellites permit scientists to stay on top of sudden changes in forest cover. The deforestation rate in Brazil fell by more than 60 percent between 2004 and 2007. Experts suspected that the drop correlated with depressed prices for farm products such as meat, grains, and soybeans, which made it uneconomical to clear more trees for farms and ranches. In the second half of 2007, when the markets for meat and soy boomed, satellite imagery revealed that trees were falling again at a tremendous rate, confirming the link between market forces and deforestation.

High-resolution optical images do have a drawback: clouds can block the view, especially in the tropics during the rainy season. Getting a clear composite of such an area might take several years. That has recently changed. Japan’s Advanced Land Observing Satellite carries an imaging sensor that uses radar, which isn’t foiled by clouds, rain, or darkness. This allowed the radar satellite to take clear images of the entire tropics in three months.

“This marks a new era,” says Josef Kellndorfer, of the Woods Hole Research Center. “It gives us observations of the entire globe several times a year, in a short amount of time, and you can repeat that next year and the year after that, to get really narrow observation time frames.”

Kellndorfer and his group used the radar imagery to create the first largescale mosaic of the Xingu region in the Brazilian Amazon—more than 150,000 square miles. The mosaic caused a sensation at the climate conference in Bali in December. The radar technology is so advanced, and the satellite’s orbit is so precise, that Kellndorfer’s group made the map in about 20 hours. “In the old days,” he says, “armies of students spent a lot of time doing geometric rectification work to make sure the satellite images fit together with the map data.”

Kellndorfer says that Brazil may soon integrate radar into its satellite system called DETER, “a sort of early-warning system for illegal logging.” The rainy season now stymies DETER. “But with cloud-penetrating radar,” says Kellndorfer, “you can find illegal operations fairly fast. Radar is the missing piece to the puzzle. We can really strengthen global forest monitoring capacity tremendously.”

Computers can turn satellite data into detailed digital maps that display information visually—changes in forest cover from year to year, density of vegetation, movements of tagged animals, locations of mines or logging roads. Such maps can be used to monitor and manage natural resources, or as evidence of mismanagement and criminal activity. They also can have a stronger impact than a report full of statistics and graphs.

At WRI, Susan Minnemeyer’s group has been making maps of logging roads in central Africa. Such roads reveal incursions by illegal loggers into protected areas, and they also show whether logging companies are staying within their concessions. “We make this tracking information available so we can hold governments and companies accountable for how forests are being managed,” says Minnemeyer.

The first atlas, for Cameroon in 2004, found 1,800 kilometers of illegal logging roads. Word quickly spread that the government could now detect prohibited activity. “And since then, I don’t think we’ve mapped any roads in parks,” says Minnemeyer. “Logging in these areas has virtually disappeared.” Before the atlas, logging companies often cut outside their concessions, in protected areas or community forests, and then claimed confusion about precise boundary lines. WRI’s map ended that practice.

Satellite imagery also shows governments and NGOs what’s going on across the entire Congo basin in terms of deforestation and road building. “Before, we needed to piece together various written reports from ministries and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN],” says Matthew Steil, who works with Minnemeyer on WRI’s forest initiative in central Africa. “Now we can do it much more accurately. We’re able to understand what the true threats are, so we can set conservation priorities and target our actions.”

WRI updated the Cameroon atlas in 2007 and recently finished one for the Republic of the Congo. The group will also produce maps for Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. Central Africa is being deforested at a ferocious pace, which Minnemeyer and Steil hope these maps can help slow. They are also training people who knew nothing about computers two years ago but now, because the software is so user-friendly, can digitize road atlases from satellite data.

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is also getting results by putting these new tools into the hands of people with no technological experience. ACT, which works on conservation issues with indigenous peoples, has taught Indians from remote tribes in Brazil, Suriname and Colombia how to use GPS units and the Internet to map and protect their territories.

“More lands have been claimed with maps than with bullets and swords,” says Mark Plotkin ’81, an ethnobotanist and president of ACT. “In the industrial world we don’t worry about coming home to find squatters living on our land, or cutting our trees, or mining gold in our rivers. But Indians do. When you map your land, you take claim to it in a way you didn’t before. So a map is not just a map. It’s a management plan and an education plan.”

The Indians use the GPS to mark streams, hunting areas, sacred spots and resources such as Brazil nut trees. The data are uploaded to a satellite and downloaded onto computers, where GIS software generates detailed maps. So far, ACT has helped 27 tribes map territories encompassing millions of acres. The group works with the relevant governments to get the maps classified as official.

ACT also persuaded Google to provide high-resolution satellite imagery of Brazil and Suriname through Google Earth. Tribal members periodically visit one of ACT’s six offices to study their lands on Google Earth for new signs of logging or mining: roads, airstrips, disturbances in the canopy, discolored rivers. They can detect even the smallest mines and logging camps. Back at home, they use a GPS to locate the spot and confirm the suspicious activity. Then they either notify the local authorities and provide the exact coordinates, or they devise their own solutions.

For instance, a tribe in the Tumucumaque region on the Brazil- Suriname border used Google Earth to detect gold miners infiltrating one of the most remote areas of its territory. It turned out that the miners had breached the territory by cutting a portage around some severe rapids that formed a natural barrier to the Indians’ land. So the Indians put a village there. “There’s still a portage point,” says Plotkin, “but nobody is sneaking through it anymore.” The tribe has established guard posts at other spots that showed signs of encroaching mining.

“The future of the rainforest is in the indigenous lands and private reserves,” says Plotkin. “Five percent of the Amazon is national parks and 25 percent is indigenous reserves. Do the math.” He’s convinced that indigenous presence combined with Western technology is the best conservation plan.

THAT'S JOHN AMOS'S plan too. He’s founder and president of SkyTruth. “We were established with the idea that anybody on the planet who cares about what’s happening to our environment should be able to see it with their own eyes,” he says. To that end, SkyTruth provides satellite imagery, GIS maps, and other visual information to NGOs working on conservation issues.

Before starting SkyTruth in 2001, Amos spent 10 years providing similar services to oil, gas, and mining companies that wanted to find and exploit natural resources. He grew increasingly disturbed by the imagery he found—oil slicks at sea, severe destruction at mining sites, deforestation all over.
Then came what he calls his “epiphany,” caused by a satellite image of the devastation around Mount St. Helens—not the area flattened by the eruption, but the much bigger area of destruction caused by clear-cuts in the surrounding national forest.

“And this was on public land,” says Amos. “Yet none of the shareholders in this national trust had a clear idea it was happening. That made me start thinking that this type of imagery needs to be out in the public domain, freely and easily available to any schoolchild or American taxpayer who has an interest.”

NGOs come to SkyTruth for images that tell a story about an issue—for instance, drilling by oil and gas companies. SkyTruth’s images taken over a five-year period in the West illustrate how quickly the energy industry is putting footprints all over public lands there. The next thing people always want to see, says Amos, is what a place will look like five years from now.

SkyTruth produced imagery showing the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be the largest open-pit gold mine in the hemisphere, and what the site looks like now—wilderness—and then digitized the company’s mining plan and overlaid it on the present. The mine would sit in the headwaters of southwest Bristol Bay, critical habitat for Alaska’s sustainable salmon fishery.

When the “before” image was projected at a meeting in Anchorage, elders from a dozen communities near the proposed mine excitedly walked up to the wall and began pointing out details: “This is where we pick berries every summer; this is the stream where my son killed his first moose.” The next image showed the same area with the footprint of the mine plan on it. The mining pit, waste piles, and tailings ponds obliterated many of the places that the elders had been pointing to moments earlier. The local people had generally supported Pebble Mine because of the economic benefits promised by the mining company, but that single image changed everything.

“Imagery is powerful and creates an emotional response,” says Amos. “I think this technology will be an increasingly ubiquitous tool in engaging the public on a whole range of issues.”

Consider Google Earth. As of last June, according to Google, more than 200 million unique IP addresses around the world had downloaded the free software. “Revolutionary imagery that was basically spy technology a few years ago is suddenly at everybody’s fingertips,” says Amos. He is now working on a way to combine this technological power with the surging popularity of social networks, wikis, blogs, and digital photos to create “an army of citizen environmental witnesses.” Satellite imagery tells a more complete story, he says, if it’s bolstered by photos taken from low altitude— from a plane or on the ground.

For the gas fields in Wyoming, for instance, SkyTruth has satellite images showing white dots connected by thin white lines, but also aerial photos that turn the dots into drilling pads that cover three acres and the lines into roads 50 to 100 feet wide. Amos wants to add photos taken by people on the ground that show all the trucks, equipment and open pits of drilling fluids. He envisions people uploading such pictures to a photo-sharing site. SkyTruth would then add them to its visual file on that location. “If this capability had existed in 1994, it wouldn’t have taken 10 years for people to hear about this explosion of oil and gas drilling on public lands in the West,” he says. “The world can’t wait for 10 years anymore. Our time horizons for taking effective action are getting shorter all the time.”

SATELLITE IMAGERY is allowing conservation biologists to monitor changes in critical habitat. In the last decade, for instance, habitat suitable for tigers has shrunk by 40 percent, and satellite data indicate only four remaining areas that can support the world’s last 500 tigers. Satellite imagery shows orangutans in a similar predicament; illegal logging in Southeast Asia is destroying the ape’s habitat so quickly that the animal might be extinct in the wild in 20 years.

Satellite imagery also makes clear that logging and agriculture in central Africa are threatening the other three great apes—gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. As part of the conservation effort for these animals, scientists are using satellite data to create vegetation maps. Every plant reflects a particular spectrum of light, which allows scientists to inventory and map, say, the density of a gorilla’s favorite foods, such as stinging nettles, wild celery, and thistles. The map tells scientists how much “carrying capacity”—food and shelter—an area can provide and indicates which areas are worth protecting.

Chris Raxworthy, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, concerned about the swift destruction of Madagascar, has developed a program that combines satellite data with software to predict which specific areas of the island are most likely to contain new species of chameleons (his research interest). When he tested the model in the field, he found seven species unknown to science. The program saves time, money and, perhaps, habitat and species.

After seeing hundreds of African elephants massacred by poachers, Steve Gulick invented a small device that uses satellite technology to expose poachers through their killing tools—guns, snares, and machetes. Called TrailGuard, it contains magnetic sensors that detect iron. When poachers trigger the sensor on a trail—in Africa’s dense forests, all human travel is along trails—the device transmits a signal to a satellite gateway hidden in the canopy, which relays it to the satellite. The satellite beams an alarm message to the authorities via computer, satellite phone or pager. The message contains the number of intruders, their exact location, and their direction of travel. With this early warning, rangers can be dispatched to head off the poachers before the killing starts or at least to capture them afterward.

“Essentially it’s a burglar alarm for parks,” says Gulick, now a visiting scholar at the College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, State University of New York. People authorized to be in the park—rangers and researchers—would carry a small transponder recognized by the sensor.

Gulick has successfully tested TrailGuard in two African parks, and he expects it to be in production by this summer. Demand is already strong. “In the last year, because of publicity, none of which I sought,” he says, “I’ve had inquiries from parks in 24 countries.” Gulick expects the device to cost about $1,000. The trails leading into a park typically are few and start from a village, so an entire park often can be protected by a dozen TrailGuards. This is crucial in Africa, where parks are big and understaffed. The device also will detect illegal loggers carrying chainsaws. Gulick will soon add acoustic sensors to pick up the sound of chainsaws and mechanized equipment, and an ultraviolet sensor to detect campfires.

Satellite technology has become crucial for managing resources and for planning. Experts are using satellite data to predict long-term weather patterns such as droughts and floods. This information improves management plans for natural disasters, agricultural programs and outbreaks of disease. Satellite sensors now can measure water volume in a river, regulate irrigation flows, and detect the amount of moisture in soil. India’s stateowned power utility is using satellite imagery to avoid putting transmission lines through forests. India and a few African countries are experimenting with telemedicine, which connects large hospitals to rural clinics via satellite. Satellites also make long-distance education possible. On a bigger scale, conservationists expect satellites to play a key role in the proposed initiative called REDD (Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation), in which developing countries could earn money by leaving their forests uncut. Satellites would monitor the program.

The technology is also revealing unexpected relationships. Scientists now believe that dust clouds blown from west Africa account for more than half of the Amazon’s annual supply of minerals. These winds also carry industrial pollutants, bacteria, and viruses that may cause diseases in this hemisphere, including asthma and flu in humans and foot-and- mouth disease in animals.

The potential of the technology seems boundless, but there are a few concerns, starting with access. Poor countries sometimes can’t afford the necessary hardware and software or the fees for imagery and data. Developing countries may also lack people trained to use and interpret the technologies. Countries may refuse to share data, citing national security.

IN THE UNITED STATES, scientists are concerned about neglect. Since 2000, the Bush administration has slashed the budget for Earth observation by more than 30 percent in real dollars, leading the National Academy of Sciences to warn in 2005: “The current U.S. civilian Earth observing system, operated by NASA, NOAA and the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey], is at risk of collapse,” a warning that was repeated in 2007.

Consequently, scientists anticipate a gap in the data stream provided by our workhorse Landsat system. Landsat 7, launched in 1999, has not been fully functional since 2003 and is expected to fail well before the next Landsat is launched in 2011 or 2012. The budget cuts also forced the delay or cancellation of many critical satellite missions related to Earth science, water science, sea surface temperatures, aerosols in the atmosphere, critical climate variables, and others.

“We lost enormous capability at a time when we needed to be developing capability, particularly if we’re trying to develop long-term records to understand long-term problems like climate change,” says Berrien Moore, who co-chaired the National Academy report that contained the warning and is director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire. Moore is relieved that President Bush has proposed to raise the budget for Earth sciences by $100 million in fiscal year 2009, to $1.45 billion. But he also notes that this figure is still about $600 million less, when adjusted for inflation, than the government was devoting to Earth sciences in fiscal year 2000.

Scientists and NGOs have no doubt about the power of satellites to boost conservation. The question, says John Amos of SkyTruth, is whether satellite technology will keep up with the technologies that are having such a destructive impact on our planet.

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.

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