13.05.2021 | TOP NEWS, Biodiversity Conservation

Observing biodiversity change from space

Summer marine phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea captured by Envisat's MERIS on 13 July 2005. (Picture: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Summer marine phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea captured by Envisat's MERIS on 13 July 2005. (Picture: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

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How to measure biodiversity using satellites

Based on a media release by the University of Twente

Enschede/Halle. As humans, we’re currently facing two big environmental crises: climate change and biodiversity loss. The first managed to gain a lot of public attention and funding, whereas the latter goes on more slowly in the background. One of the key problems the biodiversity crisis is facing is the few ways to monitor biodiversity. In his recent publication, an international team led by the University of Twente and with the participation of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, linked existing remote sensing products to so-called essential biodiversity variables (EBVs) to measure biodiversity using satellites. The paper has been published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

There are significant information gaps on the state of biodiversity in the world. A team of ecologists and remote sensing experts worked together to identify how to bridge these gaps.

“In our paper, we present an exhaustive analysis of the benefits and limitations of state-of-the-art remote sensing products for monitoring biodiversity change”, says co-author Dr Néstor Fernández, who is a postdoctoral researcher at iDiv and MLU.

“Important biodiversity attributes such as the distribution and abundance of animal and plant species can be monitored only through field studies and involve considerable sampling efforts,“ explains first author Andrew Skidmore, professor at the University of Twente. “On the other hand, ecosystems can be observed from satellites that cover the entire earth within a few hours or days. It’s relatively easy to measure land cover in an area by using remote sensing techniques such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellites, and also how this changes over time,” says Skidmore. “But we cannot operationally measure species abundance from space“.

The scientists identified nearly 120 biodiversity products that provide critical information about biodiversity and can be measured from space. For example, changes in the function and structure of an ecosystem can be measured following forest fires. Furthermore, the information retrieved from satellites can also be used to monitor losses and gains of species habitats, to detect changes in the vegetation green-up as a consequence of climate change, or, in some cases, the biodiversity of plants.

 “The study will help us to measure Essential Biodiversity Variables for reporting the state of biodiversity from local to global scales,” says Fernández. The researchers also give recommendations for space agencies such as ESA and NASA to design sensors and satellites adequate for biodiversity studies.

This publication is partly a contribution of the H2020 Project e-shape with the participation of MLU and funded by the European Commission under grant agreement 820852.


Original publication:
(Researchers with iDiv affiliation in bold)

Skidmore, A., …, Fernández, N., … & Wingate, V. (2021): Priority list of biodiversity metrics to observe from space, Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01451-x



Prof Dr Andrew Skidmore
Department of Natural Resources
University of Twente
Email: a.k.skidmore@utwente.nl


Dr Néstor Fernández
Postdoctoral researcher
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU)
Phone: +49 341 97 33229
Email: nestor.fernandez@idiv.de
Web: www.idiv.de/en/groups_and_people/employees/details/eshow/fernandez_nestor.html


Sebastian Tilch
Media and Communications
German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 97 33197
Email: sebastian.tilch@idiv.de
Web: www.idiv.de/media


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