Probing the causes of ecosystem change

Satellite data has great potential for detecting changes in ecosystems. An EU-funded project is combining space and ground data to develop an innovative method of monitoring ecosystems, to give early warnings of ecosystem change and biodiversity loss.

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Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


  Infocentre

Published: 12 March 2019  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
EnvironmentAtmosphere  |  Biodiversity  |  Climate & global change  |  Earth Observation  |  Ecosystems, incl. land, inland waters, marine
Research policyHorizon 2020
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Austria  |  Denmark  |  Germany  |  Italy  |  Netherlands  |  Switzerland  |  United Kingdom
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Probing the causes of ecosystem change

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© Stéphane Masclaux #62786737, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com

Our planet is undergoing fundamental changes in climate and land-use, but exactly what this means for biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems is not fully understood. Today, we have multiple data streams that could help provide answers. However, there is a need to develop new methods of integrating this data to better understand how terrestrial ecosystems function.

The EU-funded BACI project is investigating the potential of combining data from European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel satellites with ground-based observations to monitor ecosystems. It is developing a novel Biosphere-Atmosphere Change Index (BACI) to identify changes in ecosystem functions at an early stage.

The project’s early warning system will be capable of automatically detecting critical transitions in ecosystems, and attributing them to either environmental or societal change. This will enable prompt and appropriate actions to address the degradation of ecosystem services and biodiversity loss.

‘BACI has shown how satellites provide added value in monitoring biodiversity and to measure the impact of extreme events, such as drought or heatwaves, on ecosystems. But we have also taken many conceptual steps into the future,’ says project manager Miguel Mahecha of the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

‘One example is that we have now reconstructed the global gross primary production, in terms of the uptake of CO2, for every half hour over more than a decade. We have also conducted special case studies on changes in vegetation states in protected areas.’

Multidisciplinary collaborations

The project brings together experts from many different disciplines, for example, from the fields of remote sensing and ecology, to translate space data into indicators of change for ecosystems.

A key advance has been the formulation of new Essential Ecosystem Variables (EEVs) to detect changes in ecosystem functioning. EEVs help monitor the planet’s fundamental feedback systems, such as the flux of heat from the Earth's surface to the atmosphere that is associated with evaporation or transpiration.

‘It's the fusion of different satellite data, climate data, and ground observations that enable us to make an accurate assessment of the processes of interest,’ says Mahecha.

‘Our results can be used to map ecosystem functions to continental scales,’ he explains. ‘While data from satellites have great spatiotemporal coverage, they are typically hard to interpret. We offer ways to “translate” these data streams into units that can be directly interpreted.’

The project team are validating their methods by focussing on several key regions in Europe and Africa. The goal is to identify hotspots of change, namely, the Boreal, Black Sea and Mediterranean regions, Western Africa, Horn of Africa, and South Africa. All of these regions are also undergoing major societal-ecological transformations. The project is disentangling climate-induced ecosystem changes and socio-economic/ecological transformation processes.

Paradigm change

The automatic near real-time implementation of the project’s algorithms and indicators, involving the integration of data from ESA Sentinels using state-of-the-art machine learning methods, requires a different way of thinking about the data.

‘One key issue is to change the paradigm of assessing one data set after the other for a specific problem,’ says Mahecha. ‘We are in a difficult transition where the data processing paradigm is changing, from the idea of “downloading” and processing data at home, to data curated remotely and assessed via web interfaces. This leads to friction, as it remains unclear where the future really is in terms of data hosting. Every researcher today has to rethink their way of working in the coming years.’

Project details

  • Project acronym: BACI
  • Participants: Germany (Coordinator), Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, United Kingdom
  • Project N°: 640176
  • Total costs: € 3 322 859
  • EU contribution: € 2 997 859
  • Duration: April 2015 to March 2019

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