Arizona State University

Global Biodiversity Observatory to Reverse the Sixth Extinction Highly Ranked

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Project Summary

Earth is undergoing a mass extinction of biological diversity due to the human-driven dismantling and disruption of natural ecosystems. Low-to-middle income countries, with high natural capital and greater development needs, suffer the most from ongoing data gaps on land use, reef use, biodiversity, carbon storage, and other critical environmental decision-making factors. The MacArthur Foundation’s prior investments resulted in Imaging Spectroscopy, a technology deployed on piloted aircraft in multiple developing countries. Application of this technology has empowered organizations and clearly benefited ecosystems and communities. Our project will extend this technology to all countries on a global scale. The Global Biodiversity Observatory will employ Earth-orbiting satellites with miniaturized Imaging Spectrometers connected through artificial intelligence to drive a new internationally accessible decision-support system; empowering a rapid reversal of biodiversity loss; providing cost effective data solutions through our global partners to maximize decision impact; and improving public knowledge.

Problem Statement

Earth’s central life support systems – oxygen generation, carbon storage, water provisioning, and food production – rely upon the complex web of natural capital known as biodiversity. A mass extinction event 65 million years ago nearly wiped out life on Earth, and today we are looking down the barrel of another mass extinction event of similar proportions, driven this time by human disruption of natural ecosystems, coupled with a dramatic destabilization of our climate system. More than 80% of wild animal and 50% of wild plant biomass worldwide have been lost, while global temperatures have increased an average of 0.75°C since the beginning of the 20th century.Biodiversity loss and climate change jeopardize the livelihoods of over 3 billion people who depend on healthy soils, vegetation, and fisheries for their well-being. But there is hope. With biodiversity comes resilience, and governments are waking up to the fact that protecting and restoring ecosystems are key to weathering and even reversing climate change and ecosystem degradation. While 193 countries have ratified the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), very few have resources needed to construct a development agenda based on the world’s natural capital. The SDGs require participating countries to determine how to effectively take action to protect, restore, and manage ecosystems; better monitor the integration of biodiversity-based strategies and actions into sustainable development plans and poverty eradication strategies. The problem is most countries lack access to high resolution data and resulting indicators on natural capital to make informed decisions about development.

Solution Overview

The world’s natural capital underpins sustainable development. However, nature has declined more extensively over the past 50 years than at any other time in human history. Earth’s biosphere relies upon a complex web of interdependent organisms, yet we haven’t been able to “see” these organisms and their habitats changing in a way that aids sustainable decision-making about nature and people. Until now.High-Fidelity Imaging Spectroscopy has recently been used on aircraft to build high-resolution maps of terrestrial plant biodiversity, coral reef and coastal biodiversity, and habitat connectivity, by remotely detecting communities of species. This approach has benefited countries like Malaysia and Peru, which used detailed maps of Bornean and Amazonian plant communities to identify and protect previously unknown biodiversity. Governments, NGOs, and scientists are urgently calling for this type of high-resolution mapping, and especially change detection, across the globe to support development decision-making, but aircraft are very expensive and time-consuming.Through a new partnership with Planet, One Earth and collaborators, we will scale up our current airborne capability via the world’s first Global Biodiversity Observatory (GBO), a system of satellites, analytics, and decision-support tools to monitor changes in Earth’s natural capital in unprecedented detail. The GBO will help stakeholders apply terrestrial and marine biodiversity information to decisions about natural capital elements essential to human livelihoods, such as food productivity, water security, carbon sequestration, and disaster reduction, among other key ecosystem services. These data will be streamed into a state-of-the-art Decision Support System for global environmental conservation, management and policy actions.

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Project Funders

  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation 2006 - 2020
  • Andrew Mellon Foundation 2007 - 2020
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 2009 - 2017

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