Across all ecosystems, biological diversity is under enormous and increasing threat due to climate change and other human pressures. Responding to this problem requires strategies that integrate elements of governance, economics, human welfare, and other societal factors. It also requires the use of a science-based approach to develop safe havens for biodiversity, both in the long-term and as immediate interventions within crisis landscapes to prevent potential extinction events from occurring.
Currently, the prioritization of new areas for protection is often undertaken with incomplete and/or outdated information on the geographical extent of plant and animal assemblages. This is particularly concerning as many countries have signed on to a commitment to protect 30% of lands and oceans by 2030. How will these areas be prioritized? Without high fidelity data products that are spatially explicit and depict areas of high beta diversity (complexity), this task will be difficult to achieve.
In response, Greg Asner and his team at ASU's Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science have created and deployed a novel capability to directly map biodiversity across a range of ecosystems, using a new remote sensing technology called airborne laser-guided imaging spectroscopy (LGIS) derived from their Global Airborne Observatory (GAO) platform. Their first map, partially funded by One Earth, covered the Peruvian Andes-Amazon region, providing a spatially comprehensive assessment of the efficacy of current forest protections and identification of biodiversity hotspots. The technology has been applied to other forest landscapes including one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth in Borneo, influencing the establishment of an expanded protected area network in Malaysia.
Now in its third generation, the GAO is a complete airborne laboratory based on a highly modified Dornier 228-202 aircraft, and it carries what is widely regarded as the most advanced mapping technology operating in the civil sector today. The GAO airborne laboratory is equipped with the Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System, or AToMS, which integrates unique visible to shortwave Infrared imaging spectrometers with laser scanning and high-resolution camera sensors capable of collecting 3-dimensional biodiversity data at fine spatial resolution, including all terrestrial ecosystems and the human-built environment. AToMS can also image coral reefs and other aquatic habitats with extraordinary biological detail.
Dr. Asner and his team have developed forest beta diversity maps of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes and Amazon regions, working in partnership with local and national governments. Maps are also under development for the California Sierra Nevada region and the forests and coastal ecosystems of Hawaii.
It's time to scale this important work globally, leveraging a new generation of Earth-orbiting satellites with miniaturized Imaging spectrometers. Connected through artificial intelligence, these instruments can allow humanity for the first time to directly observe biodiversity from space, inaugurating a new era in conservation science. Satellite data will be streamed to cloud-based computer storage and analyzed by ASU’s advanced machine learning algorithms to produce 19 specific data products covering terrestrial plant biodiversity and carbon storage, habitat connectivity, and coastal marine biodiversity. Dr. Asner’s team has partnered with a leading aerospace group to place two Imaging Spectrometers into Earth orbit.
It estimated that by 2030, approximately $150B will need to be spent annually on ecosystem conservation in order to avert a sixth extinction crisis and preserve the carbon stocks that keep our global climate system in check. A relatively modest investment in the world’s first global spectral monitoring hub for biodiversity could influence the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars over the decade by driving a state-of-the-art decision support system accessible to governments, civil society, and the private sector. This could facilitate a rapid reversal of biodiversity loss by providing a quantum leap in humanity’s ability to see and understand the complexity of ecosystems.