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Why Satellites Are a Biologist’s Best Friend

From tracking penguins to coral reefs, satellites are changing the way scientists study ecology

An image of the Italian Alps, snapped in June by the ESA's Sentinel-2, could be used in biodiversity studies. (Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA)
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Typically, measuring biodiversity entails going out into the field, traipsing through a forest or a swamp, and tallying and documenting the plants or animals that live there. It’s usually an arduous and expensive process. But that's changing thanks to something in the skies, Rebecca Harrington writes for Popular Science: satellites.

Rather than rely on costly, complicated field work, writes Harrington, satellites do the hard part from space. For remote animals like whales, satellites provide a much-needed means of keeping track of populations, especially threatened ones, as Smithsonian’s Rachel Nuwer wrote back in 2014. A project called WhaleWatch combines satellite data with GPS data to track humpback whales and prevent collisions with human ships, Harrington explains.

Other satellite biodiversity projects include counting penguins in the Southern Ocean, tracking condor migrations, picking up on long term changes in coral reefs and keeping tabs on California’s wildfires.

Some of these projects have been going on for years, but scientists are getting to a point where they need to come up with some general rules about how to measure biodiversity from space, Harrington explains. Last month, a group of ecologist writing in Nature suggested using ten universal variables that both space agencies and biodiversity researchers could follow. Ironing out these specifics could help researchers better determine whether governments have actually met biodiversity goals in the future.

In the meantime, the scientific applications of satellites aren’t limited to biodiversity. Some archaeologists use them to find undiscovered ancient sites, while anthropologists have suggested keeping an eye on remote Amazonian tribes from space. Bottom line: If you're looking for cutting-edge science, you might want to look up.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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