Rise of Remote Sensing

By Megan Chan


In the news, we hear about polar bear shrinking and populations declining, and walruses trampling their young on the shores of Alaska because of the decrease in sea ice [1, 2]. On the other hand, there are stories like the sighting of the rare clouded leopard, the hog badger, the marbled cat and the yellow-throated marten caught on film in the North Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve: species we were unsure even remained in that the area [3]. So, where do we stand on the health of wildlife?

In September, the World Wildlife Fund (a.k.a. World Wide Fund For Nature) released its annual Living Project Report for 2014 that stated:

The [Living Planet Index], which measures trends in thousands of vertebrate species populations, shows a decline of 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010. In other words, vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago. [4]

With the rapid change in the world, maps quickly become outdated and misrepresentative of the status of areas we are interested in protecting or developing. Maps communicate information in a way that represent reality [5]. Meeting the demand for current data is essential if we want to keep our representation of reality as accurate as possible. This is where remote sensing can make some data collection easier to accomplish. Geographic information systems (GIS) are additional time savers when it comes to producing and storing new information [5].

Furthermore, remote sensing is useful for monitoring changes in habitats without being invasive: sometimes important for observing locations like protected areas. In Colorado, laws prohibit “anything mechanical or motorized” from entering the protected area in order to avoid extensive man-made damage [6]. We have technology to help with this problem.

So, where are we with technology? If you looked at the news, you could read about NASA launching their Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) for measuring pollutants and small particles in the air [7]. On a similar note, current satellites and a new marine gravity model are in the process of creating higher-resolution, more in-depth images of the ocean floor [8]. Access to remote sensing tools or imagery, and GIS software make collection and analysis faster than previously [5].

Maybe you are worried about accessibility or cost. Open source materials, like the Arduino microcontroller, are acting as a catalyst for new scientific instruments [9]. As of 2011, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has made species and habitat information available [10]. The Atlas of Canada and the U.S. Geological Survey provide a limited but excellent source of data for anyone interested in using it. There is even open source GIS software for this free data depending on your needs.

Not convinced that the instruments available to us are effective? This technology is still growing. There is always room for growth.

Here’s a video I find fascinating of ecologist, Greg Anser, giving a TED Talk in 2013 about his work on collecting data and how he makes remote sensing work for his research:

We still have limitations. We can still maintain some skepticism, but if you do not like the instruments in front of you, think about making your own.



[1] Maki, A. (2014, Oct. 02, 2014). How the effects of climate change in Arctic Canada are shrinking polar bears. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/shrinking-polar-bears-a-barometer-for-the-climate-sensitive-north/article20904215/?utm_content=buffer738cb&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer


[2] AP. (2014). Walruses forced ashore en masse as sea ice melts. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/walruses-forced-ashore-en-masse-as-sea-ice-melts-1.2783672


[3] Mukherjee, K. (2014). Can technology developments save what’s left of our wildlife? The Time of India. Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Can-technology-developments-save-whats-left-of-our-wildlife/articleshow/42380949.cms


[4] WWF. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014: species and spaces, people and places. In R. McLellan, L. Iyengar, B. Jeffries & N. Oerlemans (Eds.). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.


[5] Vitek, J. D., Giardino, J. R., & Fitzgerald, J. W. (1996). Mapping geomorphology: A journey from paper maps, through computer mapping to GIS and Virtual Reality. Geomorphology, 16(3), 233-249. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0169-555X(96)80003-1


[6] Estabrook, R. (2014). Climate change causing National Park Service to ‘rethink’ wilderness management. Colorado Public Radio. Retrieved from CPR website: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/climate-change-causing-national-park-service-rethink-wilderness-management


[7] Keesey, L. (2014). New remote-sensing instrument to blaze a trail on the International Space Station [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-09/nsfc-nr090814.php


[8] Gramling, C. (2014). Satellites reveal hidden features at the bottom of Earth’s seas. News. Retrieved from Science website: http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2014/10/satellites-reveal-hidden-features-bottom-earths-seas


[9] Davis, J. (2014). Students build smart devices and scientific instruments with Arduino. Life. Retrieved from Open Source website: http://opensource.com/life/14/9/tools-scientific-discovery-open-hardware

[10] Ball, M. (2011). Washington State Unlocks Habitat Data with New Online Mapping Site. Retrieved from http://www.sensysmag.com/spatialsustain/washington-state-unlocks-habitat-data-with-new-online-mapping-site.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+SpatialSustain+%28Spatial+Sustain%29