From the individual birdwatcher to the most groundbreaking of satellites - a team of EU-funded researchers is integrating observation data on nature and the environment to give a fuller picture than ever before of biodiversity in Europe.
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“Information on life on Earth is crucial to addressing global and local challenges, from environmental pressures and societal needs, to ecology and biodiversity research questions,” says Christoph Häuser coordinator of the EU BON project and deputy director general of Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde.
While existing data are vast and dispersed, information is not always easy to locate, accessible or understandable. And gaps remain: many areas have not been monitored, or not over any length of time. In other cases, less ‘popular’ flora and fauna have been neglected.
EU BON is an attempt to overcome these problems at European level and to contribute to the Group on Earth Observations (GEO)'s global initiative with the same aims – GEO BON.
Elsewhere, information exists, but is not available to the general public. Of 20 data providers investigated by EU BON, only one third was freely accessible to the general public, whereas two thirds were available with various restrictions. This was a surprise to Häuser, who would like to see a political will to share information. Environmental services are, after all, a huge opportunity for governments, he makes clear.
Comparing like with like
The very different ways in which data are recorded are also a barrier to integration. Häuser gives the example of botanists – in Central Europe, they divide a map into squares and record the occurrences of a particular plant for each square. The exact locations of the plants within the square are not noted. Elsewhere in Europe, botanists work differently, sometimes marking exact locations.
These gaps and lack of comparability are not only a barrier for scientists, but, in the case of biodiversity, for those dealing directly with natural resources (for example agriculture, fisheries, nature conservation), and for decision-makers charged with protecting biodiversity or shaping environmental policies. Both groups require data in a digestible format, as well as more standardised data analysis.
From sketchpad to space satellite
EU BON is building the technologies to integrate available data, which fall into three main categories:
- Classical observation data, including from individual plant or bird enthusiasts, as well as from specimens preserved in collections. Europe has a very rich history here, explains Häuser. But information may not be digitised, and first convincing ordinary citizens to contribute data and then finding a way for them to do this may require a separate project of its own, he concedes.
- Spatial data on specific – often protected – areas marked for monitoring. While rich, the data only covers a limited area.
- Satellite data, on vegetation cover or other biological properties, for example. While satellites and sensors provide extensive coverage at increasingly high resolution, they also have weaknesses – in recording most animal life, for example, or monitoring what happens in soil or under water. There is also no historical satellite data with which to compare today’s observations.
All of these data types will be integrated in a European biodiversity portal, providing users with a more complete overview and customised access to their subject, also showing historical trends or comparisons with other geographical regions. “I’m pretty confident about delivering an innovative technical solution to integrating these systems,” says Häuser.
Another goal is to make the information scalable, even down to community level, and to provide open and free access. Those providing the data should however be properly accredited for their efforts – clear rules and guidelines are needed, Häuser muses.
The biggest achievement to date has been getting the network together, says the EU BON coordinator. And he’s not just referring to the 31 official partners from 18 countries, but also the 30 or so associated partners – “the number is growing daily”. This has already provided the team with an “outstanding grasp of the biodiversity data landscape” and provided the basis for the next stages.