Managing environmental change

This blog post by Rebecca Emerton, a Scenario DTP student at University of Reading, is part of a series on Responding to Environmental Change, an event organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Doctoral Training Partnerships at Imperial (SSCP), and the University of Reading and the University of Surrey (SCENARIO).

See the full list of blogs in this series here.

In addition to natural variability, human activities are causing rapid, large-scale climate and environmental change. Understanding how these processes work as a whole Earth system can improve our understanding of the impacts of these changes and inform responsible management. One key challenge is how we monitor and record environmental data, and the role this data can play in managing the environment.

The third challenge area of the Responding to Environmental Change event explored the management of environmental change, including how environmental data is monitored and recorded, and challenges faced in utilising this data.

Monitoring the environment from  Space

Jacquie Conway, Head of Institutional Relations UK within Airbus Defence and Space – Geo-Intelligence, opened the afternoon with a discussion of the practical applications of Earth Observation (EO) data. A key question was presented: “Why Space?”, highlighting the benefits of EO for providing evidence used to assess how much land change is occurring, where this land change is taking place and the causes and impacts of the change, alongside uses in model validation and determining possible future changes. Examples were given such as forest mapping and monitoring, in order to identify degradation and illegal logging, and the changes in these over time. Further examples include food security and crop sustainability – analysis of drought areas and possibilities for improved farming management practices, and urban planning through monitoring land use change and developing cities. Disaster management is also key, with EO data and mapping used in emergency response, recovery and preparation.

The challenges associated with EO and Big Data are continuously evolving, with increased volume, diversity and value of EO data, in conjunction with non-space data. Aspects such as quality, continuity, timeliness and uniqueness of data are significant in approaching the Big Data challenge. Emerging solutions include the Airbus Processing Cloud, which provides a platform for hosted processing, with examples given of completed successful processing and reprocessing campaigns. Where the previous data processing time for one mission was greater than 700 days, it is now possible to process this data in just 2 weeks through use of the Airbus Processing Cloud. Alongside data processing, the platform will enable development of new products and services through a partnership approach, with the intent to support SMEs, research organisations and Universities, among others.

Copernicus was introduced as the European Flagship Earth Observation Programme to monitor environmental change, by Jacquie Conway, and discussed further by Dr Farhana Amin (Defra). Copernicus is led by the EU and co-ordinated by the ESA, and is the European response to a global need to manage the environment, providing necessary data for operational monitoring of the environment, and for civil security. With a €3.8bn investment in Copernicus, 6 missions (each with 2 satellites) will be launched, resulting in up to 8TB of new, open access data on the environment, per day. These missions will provide valuable information for land, marine and atmosphere monitoring, alongside emergency management, security and climate change services.

Environmental policy and regulation

Dr Amin gave a policy perspective on managing environmental change, highlighting the responsibilities of Defra for policy and regulation on environment, food and rural affairs, including the protection from floods and plant/animal diseases, alongside improving the environment and rural services. The statutory obligations of Defra range from monitoring pesticide residues on food, to managing natural resources through monitoring of air quality and biodiversity. Emphasis was placed on Evidence-Based Policy, using observations, knowledge and scientific research to provide the basis for all policies. Examples were given of current programmes such as Cefas – the Clean Seas Environment Monitoring Programme, which aims to detect long-term trends in the quality of the marine environment through collection of high quality, standardized data. Other examples include the monitoring of bathing water quality, and UK Surveillance Schemes involving partnerships between the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), NGOs, research bodies and volunteers to monitor wintering and breeding birds, butterflies, bats, plants and other mammals.

Satellite applications also have a long history of use within Defra, for research and monitoring of land use, roads and marine environments, and GPS data for forestry monitoring, flood monitoring and field sample collections. Again, challenges with EO were discussed, such as the highly complex processes involved, the need for high quality data and regular analysis, working around multiple partners and methodologies, and the resource intensive nature of environmental monitoring.

Understanding the ‘Critical Zone’ for life

Professor Anne Verhoef (University of Reading) provided a research perspective on managing environmental change, discussing steps towards an improved understanding and sustainable management of the ‘Critical Zone’ (CZ), which extends from groundwater reservoirs to soil, to the surface and lower atmosphere – in other words, the zone in which we live. The CZ affects food, water and energy resources, and plays a major role in our weather and (micro)climate, also allowing us to mitigate the effects of extreme events and environmental change. Advances in monitoring of the CZ at many time and space scales (for improved understanding and management), include novel monitoring of field-scale soil moisture and a wireless underground sensor network. Also on the theme of Earth Observation, imaging such as X-Ray CT imaging and remote sensing play a role in understanding and managing the CZ.

Another key aspect is modelling of the CZ, using various models to study part of, or the entire, CZ, such as land surface models (within global circulation models, e.g. JULES), groundwater models, and Soil-Vegetation-Atmosphere-Transfer (SVAT) models. SVAT models can further be coupled with remote sensing (EO) data of multiple types and at a range of spatio-temporal scales, leading to more generic tools for environmental research and management. Versatile tools exist allowing the calculation of crop yield, photosynthesis etc., such as the SCOPE model, which is an SVAT model supporting the direct interpretation of EO data. It was concluded that improving models to include more realism, and combining them with EO and remote sensing products, alongside the use of novel in-situ monitoring techniques (for improved ground data), will improve our understanding of the CZ and help move towards sustainable management of environmental change.

Benefits of collaboration for sustainable management

Both the similarities and differences between the perspectives from business, policy and research, and the challenges faced in using EO data for the management of environmental change, show the benefits of collaboration and partnerships, alongside the advances and extensive work towards sustainable management of the changing environment.

Watch a video of the talk on our YouTube channel.

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