This piece is part of a series by the King’s EOES group reporting on the ‘Space – the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring?’ Symposium hosted by ZSL on Friday 29th April 2016. This article provides the context and purpose of the Symposium. Please check out the other articles once they are uploaded in the near future.
Last month, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) hosted a symposium aimed at advancing how remote sensing (in particular earth-observing satellite imagery) is used in biodiversity monitoring. By bringing together leading ecologists and remote sensing experts, the symposium sought first to provide an overview of the present-day situation pertaining to the application of remote sensing in biodiversity science before discussing its future direction to aid monitoring and conservation. King’s very own Dr Emma Tebbs was among the distinguished speakers, whilst several doctoral candidates were in participation of the event (enabled by funding from the Earth Observation and Environmental Sensing activity hub).
The problem is clear; we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in the earth’s history. At least 100 species are thought to have disappeared since 1980, and even by conservative estimates, the extinction rate over the past century has been over 100 times greater than the background rate. In addition to species extinctions, surviving species have simultaneously been hit by significant population declines, with 52% of a representative sample of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish being lost in the past 40 years. Based on such figures, there seems little doubt “the information age is failing the world’s wildlife”.
Far from removed, we as humans are dependent upon the provision of vital services biodiversity and associated ecosystem functioning. At present however, we have a limited grasp of accurately constraining how species are faring, let alone what is driving species declines. These however can be considered key pieces of knowledge to help solve the extinction crisis.
Significant challenges however exist in improving biodiversity monitoring. Species monitoring is extremely resource intensive in terms of training, field costs and person-hours. Due to the remoteness and inhospitableness within which much of the Earth’s biodiversity is present, there are many practical obstacles to conducting such monitoring. The global coverage of satellite imagery offers significant potential to help overcome many of these obstacles. Moreover, as Gary Geller affirms, “the era of unaffordable remote sensing data is gone”, with many satellite data products being made freely available in recent years.
Satellite remote sensing however should not be considered “silver bullet”, and its application poses as many questions as it answers. Remote sensing cannot directly measure biodiversity, nor causes of biodiversity decline; put simply by Dr Mathias Disney, “satellites measure photons”. Appropriately, Gary Geller kicked off the symposium by prompting a number of question: how can satellites help biodiversity monitoring and conservation? What exactly are we hoping to measure with satellites? In respect of this, a considerable body of literature is starting to explore potential “Essential Biodiversity Variables”, expanded upon by Alejandro Coca Castro later in this series.
Geller finishes with a call to arms; we need a Global Biodiversity Observation System. Borrowing heavily from the highly successful Global Climate Observing System, Geller compels us to coordinate efforts for monitoring, data sharing and processing, the reporting of which would help leveraging decision-makers to making appropriate decisions to safeguard biodiversity.
Utilising satellite imagery to help investigate environmental impacts of dams within my own research, I – like much of the remote sensing community – am acutely aware of the huge potential which space-borne sensors offer ecological monitoring in terms of current status, trends and threat identification. Though the road ahead presents many issues, we – particularly those of us in the ecological, remote sensing or scientific fields more broadly – must seek to advance technological applications for biodiversity if we are to shed our moniker of “generation extinction”.
Attendance of the symposium was an invaluable opportunity to contribute to the development of satellite remote sensing science for biodiversity science and conservation. Overall, the symposium left participants with a sense of optimism, though appreciative of the huge scale of the task at hand. Through engaging with such initiatives, the Earth Observation and Environmental Sensing activity hub is assisting in making a concerted effort in helping to halt the continued decline of the globe’s biodiversity.
The author Kris Chan would like to thank the Earth Observation and Environmental Sensing hub for providing funding for the symposium registration fee, without which it would not be possible to attend.
You can connect with Kris on twitter @Newtoutofwater
 Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R., Barnosky, A.D., García, A., Pringle, R.M. & Palmer, T.M. (2015) ‘Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction’ Science Advances 1(5): 1-5. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253
 Joppa, L. (2016) ‘Monitoring global threats to biodiversity.’ Unpublished presentation at: Space – the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring? Symposium, 29 April 2016, ZSL Meeting Rooms, London.
 Geller, G. (2016) ‘Global biodiversity monitoring: challenges, status, and paths forward.’ Unpublished presentation at: Space – the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring? Symposium, 29 April 2016, ZSL Meeting Rooms, London.
 Disney, M. (2016) ‘New ways of looking at old forests: detecting ecosystem change using 3D measurements and models.’ Unpublished presentation at: Space – the final frontier for biodiversity monitoring? Symposium, 29 April 2016, ZSL Meeting Rooms, London.