You don’t have to be a member of Greenpeace to see that the planet, its ecosystems and its wildlife are under threat. Climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification, pollution—the list of human-caused insults to the environment is long. It’s the classic problem of being unable to see the forest for the trees.
However, in the last few years, conservationists and others have turned to big data to get the big picture on environmental degradation, helping to wrangle answers to some of the globe’s most pressing problems. Big data, in this case, comes in various forms, from satellite images to global trade databases to social media postings.
For example, a paper published online earlier this month in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that it is possible to calculate the environmental cost of that smartphone in your pocket. Researchers leveraged a global trade database—basically a high-resolution economic map of the world—to map a country-by-country threat to nearly 7,000 species.
The scientists linked two main sources of information: the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and the Eora global trade database. The latter documents five billion supply chains, linking 15,000 sectors in 187 countries.
“We use the IUCN threat cause [or causes] to link the threats to culpable industry,” explains Daniel Moran from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and lead author on the paper, in an email to Singularity Hub. “Then, for each species, we use the species range map from IUCN. For each of the 187 countries, we build a footprints map. This map composites the ranges of each species in each supplier country, based on the unique product mix of each supplier to the target consumer country.”
The result is a map showing hotspots where species are under threat based on consumption by individual countries. For example, it turns out that the US footprint in Brazil is more intense in southern Brazil, where agriculture and grazing are extensive, than the Amazon basin, as one might assume.
Moran notes that his work with co-author Keiichiro Kanemoto from Shinshu University in Japan is the first to link the global supply chain to conservation issues. Next up for the researchers: “We would like to link with projects like Global Forest Watch and Global Fisheries Watch, which use satellite data to do real-time monitoring of forests and fisheries, and link that to trade data,” Moran says. “Then we could get a ‘live’ (or as close to it as possible) view of impacts on the planet and what supply chains are driving them.”
Another ongoing project is using big data analytics to test whether it’s feasible to use “human sensors”—posts from social media—to gauge the health of ecosystems when combined with other data sets. Specifically, researchers at the Griffith Institute for Tourism are trying to monitor environmental conditions at the Great Barrier Reef in real time using tweets from Twitter, in addition to meteorological data, tourism statistics, water quality reports, and coral cover, among other variables.