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Big data can help save the planet, but time is running out

The systematic analysis of large datasets, also known as big data, is very effective in pinpointing what must be done to rescue our planet. The insights provided by big data reveal the major causes and trends of environmental degradation, but scientists have found that we are running out of time to apply what we are learning. 

According to the authors of a new study, increased computing speeds and data storage has driven the growth of big data over the last 40 years, but the planet is still facing serious decline.

Study lead author Dr. Rebecca Runting is an expert in the School of Geography at the University of Melbourne. Dr. Runting explained that while we currently have an unprecedented ability to generate, store, and analyze data about the environment, these technological advances will not help the world unless they lead to action.

“Big data analyses must be closely linked to environmental policy and management,” said Dr. Runting. 

“For example, many large companies already possess the methodological, technical, and computational capacity to develop solutions, so it is paramount that new developments and resources are shared timely with the government, and in the spirit of ‘open data’.”

Large datasets showed that from 2000 to 2012, more than two million square kīlometers of forest was lost, and marine and coastal ecosystems have experienced similar declines. The analysis of over 700,000 satellite images revealed that more than 20,000 square kilometers of tidal flats have vanished since 1984.

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently seeing governments making rapid (health) decisions based on fairly sophisticated data analysis,” said Dr. Runting. “There may be opportunities to learn from this and achieve a similarly tight coupling of analysis and decision-making in the environmental sector.”

Study co-author Professor James Watson said that big data is now capable of identifying environmental health risks worldwide using platforms like Google Earth combined with satellite tracking.

Dr. Runting noted that big data has been pivotal in quantifying spatial and temporal trends across Earth. For example, an automated tracking vessel is being used to predict illegal fishing activity in real-time.

“This has allowed governments to quickly investigate particular vessels that may be undertaking illegal fishing activity within their jurisdiction, including within Australian waters,” said Dr. Runting. 

“What the big data revolution has helped us understand is the environment is often doing worse than what we thought it was,” said Professor Watson. “The more we map and analyze, 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.”

“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.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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