A new commentary paper published in Nature Communications has taken a frank look at the state of our Earth's environment using "Big Data." Trends in these large datasets suggest our clock is running out to make the necessary changes. That said, researchers report "bright spots" and opportunities to turn this around.
The unprecedented amount of data we now have about the natural world is great for research, but it won’t help us unless it leads to changes in policies and political actions, note the team. We've recently seen what political will can do with research during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently seeing governments making rapid (health) decisions based on fairly sophisticated data analysis," lead author Dr Rebecca Runting, from the University of Melbourne, said in a statement. "There may be opportunities to learn from this and achieve a similarly tight coupling of analysis and decision-making in the environmental sector."
Large companies already have the skills and tech to find solutions, write the team, and these must be shared and then taken on-board by governments around the world.
Big data has been able to identify many dramatic changes to the environment. For example, 2.3 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles) of forest were destroyed between 2000 and 2012. Meanwhile, 700,000 satellite images showed that 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of tidal flats have vanished over the last 35 years. These and many other large dataset studies have revealed the perilous state of our planet.
"What the big data revolution has helped us understand is the environment is often doing worse than what we thought it was. The more we map and analyse, the more we find the state of the environment, albeit Antarctic ice sheets, wetlands, or forests, is dire. Big data tells us we are running out of time," co-author Professor James Watson, from the University of Queensland, added.
"The good news is the big data revolution can help us better understand risk. For example, we can use data to better understand where future ecosystem degradation will take place and where these interact with wildlife trade, so as to map pandemic risk."
Some of this tech is already being used. From tracking illegal fishing to enforcing forest conservation, big data can be an instrument of action too, not just provide knowledge about the state of our planet. We just need to start using it more, conclude the team.