Rise of techno-ecology a double-edged sword

Technology is transforming profession of ecology and enhancing scope for precisely targeted work, but some practitioners fear traditional field skills are being lost to computer screens and ever-fancier gadgets

Flight of the drone: a conference presentation by Liam Murphy of Coastway Surveys showed how unmanned small aircraft explore ecosystems using multi-spectral cameras and sensors

Flight of the drone: a conference presentation by Liam Murphy of Coastway Surveys showed how unmanned small aircraft explore ecosystems using multi-spectral cameras and sensors

 

How do you picture a professional ecologist, if you picture one at all? Many of us probably still imagine a figure rather like a Victorian naturalist: shod in robust boots, swaddled in waxed waterproofs, shoulders hung with binoculars, cameras and canvas sample-bags.

This image still reflects some part of the life of people who study natural systems. Indeed, ecologists who never get their feet wet may not be very good at their jobs, and have probably lost touch with the beating heart of their subject.

But contemporary ecologists spend much of their time at computer screens, using customised software to analyse environmental data. And much of that data has been collected, not by someone hiking across rough ground with binoculars, but by remote sensing equipment. This ranges from radar to radio and GPS tags, and is carried by platforms ranging from wild birds to satellites to drones.

This shift to techno-observation and analysis was the subject of a recent conference of the Irish section of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. From some of the equipment on display at a Co Wicklow hotel, you might have thought for a moment that you were at an arms fair, from some of the jargon bandied about, at a gathering of computer programmers.

Not everyone is comfortable with the rise of techno-ecology. One or two ecologists stayed away from the conference, fearing that technology is distracting the profession from its core tasks in science and conservation. And one presenter referred to the risk that technology, not ecology, may become the driving force in a project.

The institute itself has recently produced a report called Closing the Gap: Rebuilding Ecological Skills in the 21st Century that could be taken to support this view.

It presents “compelling and alarming evidence” that basic field skills – even the ability to identify key species – have declined drastically among ecologists in recent years. Some veterans ascribe this decline to an obsession with computer modelling and ever- fancier gadgets.

However, most of the presenters at the conference argued that, used judiciously, technological advances presented options that were unimaginable only very recently. They may even make it possible to restore what hitherto appeared to be to be irreversible losses of ecosystems and biodiversity.

Bog restoration

Francis MackinThe Irish Times

He is the first to acknowledge that the key issue here is social, not technical: we must find new ways of engaging local stakeholders with the need for conservation if our bogs are to stand any chance of being saved.

But he says that recent LiDAR surveys, using low-flying light aircraft, have revealed that significantly more areas of degraded bog are likely to be recoverable than was thought previously. This will assist in prioritising scarce resources to places where they have most chance of bearing fruit.

LiDAR – light-ranging and detection – scans landscapes by projecting millions of laser beams signals, and measuring the time it takes for them to be reflected back to the scanner. It can be set to register many points per square metre. The point that takes the longest time to reflect the signal registers as the lowest point in the square, the shortest time indicates the highest point.

This provides minutely detailed information on the degree of slope on a bog, information that would be almost impossible, and certainly very time-consuming and therefore very expensive, to gather accurately by ground surveys. This data is then processed by software using ever more sophisticated geographical information systems (GIS).

But why is this slope information so critical to restoration success? The answer lies in a peculiarity of raised bogs. Their defining characteristic is, of course, their capacity to produce peat. To do this, the bog surface needs to retain rainwater for long periods, with very slow run-off, marinating layer upon layer of dead mosses until peat begins to form. There is a fairly straightforward equation: if the slope on a degraded bog is greater than a very gentle 0.6 per cent, it may be restorable. Anything steeper, no dice.

LiDAR surveys have shown that there are some 140 bogs in the country, in addition to those already designated for conservation, that have the potential to come back to something approaching their former glory.

Mackin stresses, however, that airborne gadgetry does not replace boots on the ground. “The only reason the LiDAR data is useful now is because fine- detailed fieldwork on bogs like Clara and Raheen bogs has already taught us so much about how bogs work. And it’s still a two-way process. We need ecologists in the field to validate our data, to ground truth it if you like. Then we in turn can feed more focused information back to them.”

Dramatic advances

Olivia CroweIreland

But she says that the core of their research is still “more of the same-old, same-old”, collected by enthusiasts who hike around treacherous estuaries on freezing winter mornings.

However, they increasingly submit their findings instantly from the field, on software loaded on tablets, instead of making manual notes and posting them to the office.

Meanwhile, the rapid evolution of GPS and microchips means that sophisticated tracking equipment can now be attached to smaller and smaller bird species. It is even possible to use trackers to gauge the depth to which seabirds dive, by attaching thermal sensors. And all of this information is used to design better conservation strategies.

Crowe sees these advances as an effort to level the playing field between degradation and conservation, as it were.

“We have changed nature so much through technology,” she says, “and now we need to use technology to enable natural systems to survive in the world we have made.” On the wings of a drone: cutting edge of conservation?

A conference presentation by Liam Murphy of Coastway Surveys showed how unmanned small aircraft explore ecosystems in luminous detail using multi-spectral cameras and sensors.

The use thermal imaging and infrared scanning to produce three-dimensional maps reveal aspects of the landscape invisible to the human eye.

Drones can also identify vegetation in remote locations without disturbing fragile habitats, for example on a riverbank or a slope prone to erosion. Obviously, they also save an awful lot of legwork.

Prototypes are being developed to deliver herbicides to alien invasive plants with maximum precision and minimum collateral damage, and for carrying LiDAR sensors on small-site surveys. Drones may have surveillance uses, too, assisting conservation law enforcement.

Meanwhile, radar is being used in the Pyrenees to protect vultures from wind-farm impacts. If the scan shows that a vulture is within 500 metres of spinning blades, they will stop turning.

This led Olivia Crowe to speculate that we may soon be able to tag hen harriers with a signal that could switch off a windmill directly, avoiding even the need for radar.

Sometimes, however, nature responds to technology in unexpected ways. Liam Murphy has seen falcons inflict severe damage on drones, presumably thinking that they are dispatching unusual territorial rivals.

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