Earlier this month the Scottish government announced they were considering an annual LIDAR scan of all Scotland’s forests. The project would allow high-level and up-to-date monitoring of forest cover, giving insights into biodiversity and progress on climate targets.

Large scale monitoring like this takes place all over the world, and is vital if we want to protect species and ecosystems for generations to come; we can’t protect what we don’t know is there! It might seem like, with an ever-connected world, that we already know all there is to know about our planet but that is far from the truth… 

In April 2023 a new coral reef was discovered off the coast of the Galapagos islands, scientists think that over 8 million more species of insect and up to 90% of all fungi species are yet to be discovered, and animals thought to be extinct sometimes turn up hiding in plain sight. Because of continued environmental monitoring it is no longer true that we know more about the moon than the bottom of the sea!

This article looks at some examples of environmental monitoring, large and small, why these projects are important, and how you can even get involved yourself.

The Big

Scotland is not unique in monitoring its forest cover. International organisations such as Global Forest Watch or the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation monitor forests globally using RADAR and satellites in order to track deforestation and compile data about carbon storage in forests. 

Satellites are also used to track how much ice covers our planet. The European Space Agency uses satellites to monitor Arctic sea ice, which can give scientists additional information about the impact of global heating on melting sea ice. GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space) is an international collaboration between scientists to monitor changes in glacier ice. This data helps track the impacts of the climate crisis, but can also be used to detect environmental hazards such as avalanches.

As well as monitoring the physical environment, satellite data can also be used to monitor pollution levels from gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon Mapper is a non-profit that tracks pollution from places such as fossil fuel facilities and landfill sites across the globe. This data can provide a vital first step in eliminating these emissions.

The Small

Environmental monitoring isn’t all lasers and satellites – citizen science monitoring projects track anything from litter to bumblebees and can be done by almost anyone. Usually all you need is a computer or a smartphone and a willingness to get involved.

Citizen science projects allow scientists to collect data over far bigger areas than they could on their own. Environmental monitoring can be done across entire cities, or even globally, without researchers needing to travel to every monitored location. For example, the City Nature Challenge allows wildlife surveys to be conducted in cities across the world. 

Taking part in citizen science is also a great way to connect to nature by getting involved in real research that is helping protect the natural environment, without needing any specialist skills or experience.

Why does monitoring matter?

Monitoring of environments isn’t just done to increase knowledge of those places or the species that live there. Conservation efforts rely on having accurate data about where we started, and how much progress has been made.

“From my viewpoint, any plan to monitor habitat change on a large scale is fantastic. It’s crucially needed if we’re truly trying to bring about positive change for the environment. We need to make sure that whatever we are doing [to restore nature] is actually working.”

Philippa Gullett, a project scientist at Cairngorms Connect

Regular monitoring of species, as well as large scale environments, means resources like the IUCN Red List – a list of animal and plant species globally and their conservation status – can be created, and importantly, kept up to date. 

“The IUCN Red List is crucial not only for helping to identify those species in need of targeted recovery efforts, but also for focusing the conservation agenda by identifying the key sites and habitats that need to be protected.”

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Accurate monitoring data can also be instrumental in shaping policy. For example, data gathered by users of the Planet Patrol app (for example, that just 10 companies produce more than half of all branded litter in the UK) was instrumental in the charity making recommendations to the UK government about how to tackle plastic pollution. 

While conserving habitats and species is important for their own sake, ensuring unknown species survive long enough for us to even discover them has huge implications for human survival too – researchers predict that the deep sea may be a source for novel antibiotics, helping us in the fight against antibiotic resistance. That makes it even more scary that from July 2023, corporations may be allowed to mine the deep sea for minerals.

A note on ‘discoveries’

Finally, it is important to consider scientific ‘discoveries’ and exploration from a culturally inclusive perspective. Western scientists may claim to have discovered something that indigenous cultures have known about for hundreds of years (for example, America…). Would we make discoveries faster if we paid more attention to indigenous voices? Almost certainly.

Indigenous people protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite only making up 5% of the global population, so indigenous knowledge and perspectives are clearly vital in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises.

Be Curious!

  • Take part in citizen science environmental monitoring projects:
  • Read more about the Lost Rainforests of England citizen science project in the curious archives. 
  • Sign the open letter against deep sea mining
  • Listen to this podcast about indigenous science
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