Saving life on Earth in times of climate change

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Saving life on Earth in times of climate change

Monday, 18 July 2022 | BKP Sinha

Saving life on Earth in times of climate change

Modern technologies prove effective for biodiversity management, but sustainable consumption and production practices have no substitutes

Life forms on Earth have much diversity, ranging from bacteria to plants and animals. No life form can survive on Earth without the direct or indirect support of other organisms. Each of these species and organisms works together in an ecosystem to maintain balance and sustain life. Biodiversity thus includes not only the variety of different species but also the variations within and among them and between ecosystems such as different habitats and ecological processes.

Biodiversity provides humans with a variety of essential resources and ecosystem services, including food production, pollination of plants, air and water purification and climate stabilization. It can also be instrumental in achieving sustainable development goals (zero hunger, improvement of land and soil quality), halting land degradation, building food security, preventing future pandemics and providing jobs in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, etc.

However, the world is currently experiencing an unprecedented biodiversity loss. Over one million species are at a risk of extinction and we are in the midst of a sixth mass die-off ?— the largest since the extinction of dinosaurs. The most notable drivers behind this crisis are habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive species, fragmentation, pollution and climate change. Recent climate changes such as rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather events have disrupted species' tolerance limits and nutrient cycling processes.

It is possible that these changes may create opportunities for invasive species which could further add to the stress on species already struggling to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Fragmented ecosystem is often less resilient than a contiguous one, because areas cleared for farms and roads provide pathways for invasion of non-native species, which further contribute to the decline of native species. The genetic loss also threatens species' survival over time, mainly because the number of mates becomes scarce and the chances of inbreeding risk rises. So, the best way to conserve biodiversity is to save habitats and ecosystems, because no organism can exist in isolation. Hence, a diverse pool of data from all possible domains that are directly or indirectly related to biodiversity is required for monitoring and assessing these multiple pressures on species and formulating conservation strategies.

Although, it requires a more coordinated, coherent and strategic approach by all stakeholders such as scientists, biologists, ecologists, government, private sector, forest sector, civil society and individuals. Historically, bio-geographical surveys for conservation usually involved many hours of field work performed by professional researchers, rangers, which certainly could not scale up to meet today's conservation goals.

Surveillance, especially in tropical and inaccessible terrains, is also challenging and complex. It was implausible to predict the global consequences of human activities from these locally collected data. However, recent technological advances have facilitated biodiversity conservation on many fronts, notably for collecting field data and analyzing large datasets, which is expanding human understanding of ecosystems. The increased availability of satellite imagery for instance has revolutionized data collection for ecological survey and monitoring. Similarly, application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also change the dynamics of the field in favour of threatened species. Varieties of algorithms can be developed to harness AI for surveillance, capturing picture, security, animal counting, poaching management, research, etc.

Today, satellites are being used worldwide to collect data of temperature, location, moisture, etc. These environmental information along with geo-location data are essential for understanding the scope of threat to a given species.

Habitat maps or land cover data are usually the most commonly derived product from satellite imagery which can be used to determine species' presence and absence with vegetation types and habitat components.

Even regions that are experiencing rapid change, such as tropical environments, can be closely surveyed through these means. Remote sensing enables faster and more frequent analysis of terrestrial and aquatic landscapes, including chemical and geological parameters and biological processes, which are crucial for taking timely action. It can also help conservation biologists in assessing biodiversity hotspots, maintaining healthy habitats and protecting the life they harbor by detecting failing food webs and excessive human interference.

By conventional means, this kind of surveillance was unfeasible, exhaustive and the territories needed to be monitored by the rangers were humongous when compared with the number of rangers. Fortunately, there are a variety of wildlife tracking systems now that allow us to identify protection priority areas and track animals' movements, assess critically endangered species and protect them from natural calamities and illicit activities. Data gathered from these tracking systems generates massive high-resolution datasets that reflect the ecological context in which animals perceive, interact with and respond to their surroundings.

The AI-enabled robots or drones image datasets are becoming increasingly useful for identifying species, determining animals' social groups, population, location, migration patterns, their daily activities, habitat, repeated behaviors – reproduction patterns, foraging routes, hunting habits, etc. Researchers are using floating robots equipped with image classification algorithms to locate and eradicate invasive species of marine algae before they become well-established. Also, drones can also be used to select ideal seeding sites by assessing site conditions like soil types, gradients and competing vegetation.

AI-powered acoustic sensors are helping conservationists in understanding the underwater ecosystem health by observing species behavior and their presence in a specific region or island through their sounds. Acoustic sensors can also be used to detect chainsaws, vehicles and gunshots sounds and alert authorities in real time about illegal poaching, mining or logging. Similarly, camera traps are facilitating conservationists to non-invasively monitor and track both vulnerable species and human presence in largely inaccessible areas and quickly spot anomalies or warning signs. Using environmental DNA, conservationists are quickly and easily collecting traces of animal DNA by scanning water and soil samples which can reveal the presence of unobserved species and make the case for greater protection of an area.

These conservation technologies are rapidly expanding scientific frontiers, improving conservation opportunities and assisting scientists, ecologists, foresters, policymakers and others in better understanding the complex natural environment at national, regional and species level. However, human technology cannot fully replace nature's technology, which has evolved over millions of years to provide essential services to sustain life on Earth. It is challenging to conserve the biosphere with standard economic practices that ignore sustainability issues in relation to resources or excessive stress on the environment. The success of our civilization has been largely dependent on a diverse, productive natural world and a stable climate. Thus, more sustainable production and consumption practices alongwith national and sector policies are required to address climate and biodiversity change together.

The author is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Uttar Pradesh

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