Remote sensing: Getting the big picture of biodiversity

November 24, 2021

In a feature story in Science, Elizabeth Pennisi discusses the importance of remote sensing research by plant ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares and colleagues, including NOMIS researcher and University of Zurich President Michael Schaepman. According to Pennisi, “… remote sensing methods are not only revolutionizing how scientists such as Cavender-Bares study ecosystems, they’re also poised to become powerful new tools in the fight to protect them.”

Satellites and other remote sensing tools offer new ways to study ecosystems—and maybe even save them

“Jeannine Cavender-Bares began her scientific career with her hands in the dirt. Now, she has her eyes in the sky. As a teenager she helped her biologist dad dig deep into the leaf litter of Florida oak forests to catalog the diversity of slime molds, protists best known for uniting into unsightly blobs that creep across the landscape. But it was the oaks overhead that really fascinated her and became the focus of high school science fair entries and her graduate school research.

In forest plots across the southeastern United States, she planted acorns to study how local conditions affect photosynthesis and growth of different oak species. She froze the seedlings’ stems to study how they transport water to leaves and climbed into the forest canopy to measure gases emitted by mature trees.

But such studies could only provide a snapshot of one forest at a time. To get the big picture of forests around the world, Cavender-Bares has sought a higher vantage. Now a plant ecologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Cavender-Bares has devised ways to translate light measured by spectrometers flown over forests into insights about their health and resilience. She and others have found this light, captured from an airplane or satellite, holds clues to intimate details such as photosynthesis levels, the genetic diversity of the trees, and even the microbial inhabitants of the soil they grow in.

Such remote sensing methods are not only revolutionizing how scientists such as Cavender-Bares study ecosystems, they’re also poised to become powerful new tools in the fight to protect them. Over the past year scientists have gathered to revise the most important international treaty aimed at conservation, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). With the loss of plant and animal species accelerating, some researchers say conservation efforts should turn to remote sensing to monitor biodiversity in near–real time across wide swaths of the globe—and help policymakers prioritize the most critical areas.”

Continue reading the Science feature, “Getting the big picture of biodiversity,” on science.org or download the pdf.