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Information Management and Networks

Summary of Working Group Proceedings
Chair: David Olson
Rapporteur: Michele Leslie


Forest degradation and ecosystem loss constitute great threats to life on Earth. Conservationists estimate that an average of 100 species per day will become extinct over the next 40 years should attempts to identify priority areas and effective conservation strategies fail.

Given the urgency of the situation and the limited resources available, it is necessary to focus on three aspects relevant to biodiversity conservation in order to pinpoint those information needs most critical to strategy development:

  • The current distribution and integrity of remaining natural habitats and processes
  • Assessments of current and projected threats to existing natural habitats and processes
  • How patterns of species richness, endemism, habitats, and processes vary from one place to another.
Focusing on such information will indicate which areas present the most propitious opportunities for long-term conservation efforts, covering an adequate range of biodiversity. Priority-setting is essential for achieving the fundamental goals of biodiversity conservation, identifying key habitats and ecosystems with limited time and financial resources, and analyzing data in the most cost-effective manner.

Matching NASA's capabilities and existing data sets to the needs of conservationists will facilitate priority-setting at global, regional, and local scales. Addressing access and cost issues related to such inter-organizational discussion will allow conservationists to identify key locales for research and restoration, predict the most important degree of threat to different units of biodiversity, and aid in prioritizing targets for conservation investment.

Discussion of Issues

Priority setting must focus on biogeographic units of diversity requiring the most urgent attention. An important aspect to consider even before deciding upon priorities is that different organizations fill different niches. Therefore, organizations will have different approaches to priority-setting. Keeping this in mind, it is best to start by identifying fundamental goals and targets.

The discussion focused on three types of questions:

  1. Data on the distribution and quality of remaining habitats. Current data are insufficient and the quality varies.
  2. Threat information. Where we decide to focus our conservation efforts depends upon the degree of threat a biodiversity unit faces.
  3. Distribution patterns of Species and Habitats. Understanding how they vary across time and location will help to develop a full range of conservation strategies.
Priority setting must include the identification of four fundamental elements:

  1. Distinct Biogeographic Units of Biodiversity. This includes globally rare ecosystems, ecoregions, or communities. Comparisons can then be made among these rare units in order to observe change over time.
  2. Larger Examples of Intact Habitats and Intact Biotas. The size of these units suggest that biodiversity is best maintained within such areas, offering a model for comparison with degraded habitats and biotas of a similar biological make-up.
  3. Keystone Habitats, Species, or Phenomena. These habitats significantly influence surrounding ecosystems, therefore programs aimed at conserving them are appropriate.
  4. Distinct Large-Scale Ecological Phenomena. Focusing on such phenomena requires a combination of site-specific, regional, and policy efforts applied over vast regions or continental areas.
Two levels of priority-setting can be identified according to these goals and targets: biodiversity conservation priorities and investment priorities. Investments must match biodiversity priorities.

Focusing on remaining habitat information, the discussion raised several concerns and issues:

Information existing outside of NGOs and museums is difficult to obtain in usable formats. Conservationists need to be able to identify major habitat types in order to distinguish among them. This may be facilitated through the use of moderate resolution, multi-spectral data. NGOs must be able to understand what kinds of remotely-sensed data can be obtained, and which are difficult to obtain under certain environmental conditions such as cloud cover and tree canopy. In turn, the NGOs can supply NASA researchers with information regarding habitat types of interest in order to focus NASA's related data collection and analysis to the needs of biodiversity conservation. There is a lack of information on certain important parts of the world. No global data sets of Landsat imagery exist. For example, Central Africa has no ground receiving station. Is this a possible priority? NASA might be responsible for developing the necessary ground stations. Field conservationists and image analysts must work together in order to match remote-sensing capabilities with conservation needs. This will allow NASA to focus its research efforts and realize what questions they should be asking. How effective is remote sensing at distinguishing different habitats? What information is needed to guide restoration, where deemed appropriate? Conservation efforts would also benefit from a form of early warning to detect change in ecosystems.

How to Address the Issues

Conference participants suggested that researchers focus on the classification issue. NASA and the conservation community must collaborate in order to understand the significance of landscape-level features. For example, habitat fragmentation of a floodplain is different and has different effects than fragmentation of a forest or grassland community. Identifying how different elements vary across a landscape is important. It will also be important to identify the effects of modified habitats (e.g., natural vs. highly modified forests, as in coffee plantations) in order to understand the effects on data as well as the effects on biodiversity. This research may be aided by the use of predictive models.

Participants observed that there was an issue pertaining to access to existing data. NASA doesn't own all data for all regions, so there is a need for a good global classification system to which everyone has access. Information is particularly lacking regarding non-forested and marine areas. In order to understand what remote-sensing instruments can tell us, a stepwise approach is necessary. First, compile existing data. Next, have an expert workshop devoted to naming quality locations and ecological levels. Finally, look at how to correlate remote sensing capabilities with quality versus degraded sites. This will establish the limitations of remote-sensing instruments and indicate the types of data that are needed. In particular, there is a need to develop low-cost data products that do not require major investments in staff and in processing capability.

Recommended Pilot Project Characteristics

  1. Research the differences between pristine and degraded habitats. Concerning classification, one must be able to identify an area as intact or disturbed as well as what units of biodiversity are represented. The degree of potential threat must then be assessed.

    Pilot projects should be conducted in three areas in order to test the limitations of remotely-sensed data: non-forested areas, forested vs. selectively logged areas, and marine habitats. Researchers can then assess what habitats are suitable for the use of remotely-sensed data.

    Next, researchers must address patterns of biodiversity. In order to predict future behavior of a region, indicators are necessary. Rainfall and seasonality are prime examples. Once conservationists are familiar with the important indicators for various taxa and ecosystems, NASA data sets can be used in two ways: going back and mapping extinctions and comparing current TM data sets with data collected in the field (in situ data).

    Threat analysis is another major issue. There must be a way in which data can be used to understand the dynamics of threat. NASA may have archived data that can be enhanced and then compared to current data. Presently, NASA is looking at the effect of human activity on the environment, but not for conservation purposes (urban sprawl, food production).

  2. Model the potential impact of logging on habitat. This project, which reflects a particular concern of the biodiversity conservation community, could employ NASA tools to predict where the greatest impact might be and where the greatest biodiversity concentrations are. For example, one might look at the advance of roads in northern Guatemala, though there are few biological data to go along with such a study. This will allow NASA to work with the biodiversity community to see how global climate change or human activity affects biodiversity. The imagery and data could help to support policy-making decisions.

  3. Study the tallgrass prairie with multispectral satellite data and high resolution aircraft data. Would the results of such an investigation correspond with what The Nature Conservancy already knows from its in situ studies? What can we determine regarding the complexity of a site?

  4. Examine desert sites with remotely sensed data. Suggest convening an expert workshop to identify high-quality and degraded desert sites to study. Compare habitat complexity and type with remotely-sensed data. The proposal to study the Chihuahuan Desert might fit this well.

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