Earth Science: Animal Conservationists Turn to Satellites To Track Wildlife

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SAN FRANCISCO — Advanced satellite sensors capable of capturing high-resolution images and multispectral data are helping wildlife and plant biologists obtain more detailed information than ever before on global climate change and the impact it is having on habitats around the world.

The World Wildlife Fund is using high-resolution imagery from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 satellite to create maps of conservation areas in southern Africa. The maps identify the corridors where elephants, buffalo and other animals travel as well as the local roads and villages. World Wildlife Fund officials plan to give these maps to local community leaders to show them the location of popular wildlife corridors with respect to their infrastructure. The goal is to minimize conflict between people and animals, Aurélie Shapiro, World Wildlife Fund remote sensing specialist, said in an email.

In addition, the World Wildlife Fund is using data drawn from GeoEye’s Ikonos satellite to identify underwater grasses that serve as fish nurseries in Africa’s Lake Malawi and evaluating whether high-resolution data drawn from Germany’s TerraSAR-X can be used to identify water holes in Southeast Asia where tiger prey gather, Shapiro said.

Earth observing satellites now offer such high resolution that biologists can identify a single large animal, a herd of smaller animals and the vegetation that supports wildlife. Those data allow environmentalists to conduct important research without the expense of traveling to remote areas or the potential danger of working in areas of conflict, said Leopold Romeijn, president and chief executive of Satellite Imaging Corp., a company based in Magnolia, Texas, that provides customers with satellite imagery and analysis.

WorldView-2, launched in 2009 by Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe, provides panchromatic imagery with 46-centimeter resolution and 1.8-meter resolution in eight spectral bands. GeoEye of Dulles, Va., launched Ikonos in 1999 to provide 82-centimeter panchromatic imagery and 3.2-meter multispectral imagery. TerraSAR-X, which offers X-band radar imagery with 1-meter resolution, was launched in 2007 by the German Aerospace Center and Astrium Satellites of Germany, which sells imagery through its Infoterra division.

NASA also is supporting wildlife studies in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution. NASA plans to spend $4 million to $5 million a year during the next four years to provide funding and satellite imagery to researchers studying the impact of climate changes on plants and animals.

Woody Turner, manager of NASA’s ecological forecasting program, said the work is a natural offshoot of ongoing space agency efforts to encourage innovative use of satellite data. By marrying those data with information on animal migration and habitats, biologists can determine what impact climate change is having on animals and ecosystems and anticipate future consequences, said Turner, who also serves as NASA’s program scientist for biological diversity.

For Gil Bohrer, an assistant professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, NASA funding will enable researchers to study the conditions that enable birds residing in the Arctic to travel thousands of miles during annual migrations. Scientists already track the movement of vultures and eagles with GPS tags. By linking those GPS data with detailed satellite information on wind conditions, vegetation, snow cover and precipitation, scientists will obtain a much better understanding of the migratory environment, Bohrer said.

In another NASA-funded project, scientists will investigate the impact of climate change on elk and caribou around the world. While a great deal of attention has been focused on polar bears and other animals that live in specific habitats seriously threatened by climate change, little is known about how changing weather patterns will impact elk and caribou populations, said Mark Hebblewhite, an assistant professor at the University of Montana in Missoula’s College of Forestry and Conservation.

“Some animal populations are being hammered by climate change and some are being helped,” Hebblewhite said. For a species that lives in many habitats, it is important to learn what impact climate change is having, he added.

To find out, Hebblewhite and his colleagues plan to compare regional information on elk and caribou populations in North America, Europe and Asia with satellite data. “Satellites allow us to use standardized, consistent measurements of climate across the planet,” Hebblewhite said.

Federal funding also will enable Hebblewhite to train graduate students to use satellite imagery in their research. It is important to train the next generation of scientists to learn how to use space-based data to study the impact the changing climate will have on living creatures, he added.

Ilka Feller, a senior scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., leads a NASA-supported effort to study how the changing climate is propelling the spread of mangroves in tropical and subtropical regions previously dominated by salt marshes. That change has important implications for fish, wildlife and vegetation in the region, Feller said, in addition to changing the amount of carbon stored or released into the environment.

While scientists said they are eager to use the current crop of space-based sensors to study plant and animal life, many also are looking forward to further advances in satellite technology. NASA’s Hyperspectral Infrared Imager, a mission scheduled for launch after 2020, includes a visible imaging spectrometer and a multispectral thermal infrared imager to offer detailed data on vegetation and the health of specific ecosystems.

“I read the description of the imagery the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager will provide and just drooled,” Feller said.