Big data is changing how scientists approach environmental problems.
Big data is changing how scientists approach environmental problems. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

How Big Data is Healing the Environment

Tapping satellites, birders, sensors, and park rangers, eco-crusaders are turning massive data sets into powerful tools to help the planet.

Big data is changing how scientists approach environmental problems.

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Environmental problems are tough: Causes are often complex, and solutions can be even more complicated. That could be why scientists have turned to a new strategy to improve environments—data analysis. By crunching numbers about the factors that influence ecosystems, researchers have started to hone in on fresh ways to protect the world around us.

Deforest Defrag

The University of Maryland and Google have partnered to create a high-resolution, interactive mapping tool that measures the impact of deforestation—due to everything from logging to fire and urban development—to an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy. The maps pull from 650,000 images taken by NASA satellites between 2000 and 2012. Armed with this data, scientists and policy-makers can quantify how much carbon our remaining forests around the world can hold, and better understand which areas are at greatest risk of further loss. From there, better policy-making will (hopefully) flow. University of Maryland geographer Matthew Hansen told Climate Desk that Google’s computing prowess compressed the time needed to create the maps from 15 years to a few days.

Pop-Up Wetlands in Drought-Stricken California

In California’s Central Valley, 90 percent of wetlands have been converted into farmland, which really squeezes migratory birds looking for rest and water in a key part of the Alaska-Patagonia Pacific flyway. The Nature Conservancy is running a pilot program that seeks to provide pop-up habitats for the birds, based on a reverse auction that pays farmers to flood their fields at the precise time the birds will be flying over. How do they know when that is? This is where big data comes in. TNC is taking millions of bird sighting reports that birders submit using various mobile apps, all of which funnel into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s massive eBird database.

Out-SMARTing Poachers

In Central Africa, forest elephant populations plummeted 62 percent between 2002 and 2011 and much of that loss is due directly to ivory poaching. Rangers in national parks and other wildlife conservation areas where many animals are plucked tend to lack resources needed to combat the well-armed poachers, let alone track their movements. But an open-source software system has been developed to help rangers compile data to show where and when rangers go on patrols. The data is input using GPS or manually, and it includes notes on what rangers observed and how they responded to any incidents. The goal of the system is to help park managers better allocate resources and identify areas in need of bigger or more frequent patrols. The Wildlife Conservation Society is piloting the SMART program with government agencies in Belize, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Gabon, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Thailand.


Thought still in the early stages, Italian scientist Andrea Vitaletti is leading a research group that is hoping to turn plants into environmental sensors that will be able to tell us everything from how much water they need to what chemicals are found in their soil to whether they’ve been exposed to air pollution. Why not rely on the many small wireless sensors that are already available? Because, Vitaletti says, plants might be able to provide more data, can be distributed more widely, and are resilient. This project, dubbed PLEASED—“PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices”—might make GMO corn look like child’s play, but the research promises to uncover a great deal of information scientists do not yet understand about how plants process electrophysiological signals. Once established, these cyborg plants could provide early alerts to outbreaks of parasites, new pollution sources, and degrading air and water quality.

“There’s evidence that plants react to damages, parasites, pollutants, chemicals, acids, and high temperature,” Vitaletti said recently. “But what’s not known is whether it’s possible to look into the signal and see what generated the event.”

Lead Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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