Analytics reshaping environmental monitoring

A game changer

February 6, 2013

EDMONTON, AB, Feb. 6, 2013/ Troy Media/ – If you want to imagine the future of our world’s environment, according to Dr. Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa, you need to embrace the tenets of “e-science.”

It’s the so-called “fourth paradigm” of science, a term coined in 1999 by then-Director General of the UK Research Councils Sir John Taylor. As a concept, it’s nothing more seemingly uncomplicated than big-data analytics being applied to scientific endeavours. Not unlike the first three paradigms – understanding that the Earth revolves around the sun, the notion of quantum physics, and the creating of computers in the 1970s – the implications and potential applications of the idea weren’t immediately apparent.

But as the equipment to collect scientific data became more affordable; the technologies to track everything from birds to the air itself became more refined and widespread. Data sets previously too large to create out of field notebooks became reality, and the advanced computing age opened up the possibility of actually making sense of vast amounts of scientific information.

Applying analytics to large science endeavours is an increasingly successful approach for many fields of study, and it’s bringing researchers to large-scale discoveries that might affect the fate of the planet.

“For a long time analytics has been used in the business world,” said Dr. Sanchez-Azofeifa, who leads the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Alberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “But we are starting to use it for environmental monitoring, putting sensors everywhere. It’s shifting the way we do science.”

And not in a small way. An analytics project Dr. Sanchez-Azofeifa leads in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais changed the way 16,000 square kilometers of tropical “dry forest” was classified under Brazilian law – allowing it to come under federal conservation protection in a court case that will likely transform how environmental protection is granted across South America.

Tropi-Dry, an effort of the University of Alberta funded by the Inter-American Institute (tself supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation) utilizes several years’ worth of ecological and social science research. In this case, a logging consortium faced a court challenge when it wanted to harvest within one of Brazil’s so-called tropical dry forests. While rainforests receive the lion’s share of environmental interest and protection in South America, tropical dry forests play a special part in maintaining ecological balance.

Characterized by long seasons of drought and hundreds of uniquely-adapted tree species, tropical dry forests display higher mammal numbers than rainforests, and provide a home for a remarkably wide variety of wildlife. Tropi-Dry researchers established remote-sensing monitoring systems that spanned the region, collecting vast amounts of ecological data in real time. Additional data gathered by the project’s resident experts in biology, ecology, forestry, mapping, sociology, anthropology, forestry and state policy contributed to a growing picture of the region.

Analysis of that enormous data set demonstrated the forest was arguably an extension of the already-protected Atlantic rainforest, providing a necessary buffer zone between human use and the biological diverse – and federally protected – ecosystem there. Brazil’s superior court was convinced; logging, which under state law could have taken as much as 70 percent of the tropical dry forest, was halted.

The ruling set a precedent that could, with the implementation of similar analytics projects elsewhere, help other conservation efforts. And, according to Dr. Sanchez-Azofeifa, It was an analysis that couldn’t have been imagined in scope or speed just a few years ago.

“In the past, we would put up a sensor and come back six months later and find out what changes happened,” he said. “There was a lag between when we collected that data and when we would find out what was happening. Now we use real-time sensors, and we can see changes that are happening now.”

The “happening now” approach, and the increasing integration of analytics into science, makes fields like biology more nimble; imagining new ways of interpreting data in turn inspires researchers to find new ways of collecting it. The system becomes exponentially more productive, and can begin to handle topics previously beyond our reach.

It’s an approach that can improve our understanding of areas as complex as an ecosystem, or phenomena as seemingly unpredictable as a hurricane. Dr. Sanchez-Azofeifa said computer models now interpret real-time weather data to offer predictions about possible storm speeds and trajectories – efforts that save more lives than scientists even a decade ago might’ve dreamed. All of it relies on mountains of information – and those mountains show no signs of getting smaller.

“We have massive amounts of data, which brings a challenge,” said Dr. Sanchez-Azofeifa. “Now we need to continue developing tools to understand and bring meaning to the data.”

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