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Monitoring the status, function, and disruption of ecosystems

3 min.

Ecosystems are open, dynamic, and highly complex systems of coexisting organisms and their natural environment. Keeping these systems stable and in balance can be desirable if it affects biodiversity, the food chain, other resources and functions critical for humans, and the liveability on Earth in general. Manmade and natural disasters, the climate, and the use of land, the oceans, and even airspace can disturb this balance.

To keep things under control, it is necessary to observe ecosystems to understand their status, their functioning and importance, as well as what impacts them in a good or bad way. This is not an optional effort, as policies and agreements on national and international levels demand the protection of ecosystems. The European Environment Agency (EEA) would be one of the authorities looking into ecosystems.

Observations may take place on the ground or by means of remote sensing. A plethora of data is available on ecosystems and the aspects affecting them. This enables, for instance, the production of land cover maps for the assessment and monitoring of ecosystems. Fed by satellite imagery, timeseries are produced and are visualised in maps that present changes in land cover e.g. caused by deforestation, urbanisation, or water distribution. Satellite data is also used to assess disturbance events affecting key parameters in an ecosystem, e.g. by observing vegetation phenology.

To observe ecosystems and their functions, a wide range of indicators need to be measured. To achieve that a number of different sensors is required. Here, the Copernicus Sentinels are well equipped to cover aspects of land use, marine ecosystems, or the atmosphere where such indicators can be found. Their global coverage with free and open access could (and does) enable many applications dedicated to the monitoring of ecosystems. Valuable data would come from e.g. the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, the Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service, the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, or the  Copernicus Climate Change Service. Another example is the EnMAP mission, which provides measurements of ecosystems’ processes and supports applications for measuring climate change impact, biodiversity, hazard risks, and other processes and aspects. Other missions, e.g. by NASA, will enable surface chemistry analysis with hyperspectral sensors. The Canadian Space Agency utilises their RADARSAT and SMOS missions to monitor indicators for ecosystems, and many other satellites and sensors in support of ecosystem monitoring exist given the diversity of indicators needed.

Combining the various sources and types of information consistently to derive actionable information – e.g. for policy making, measuring impact of measures, or defining initiatives – is a challenge on its own and an opportunity for Earth Observation (EO) companies to create value. The e-shape myEcosystem showcase is addressing the integration of in-situ and remote sensing data for different aspects of ecosystems in three pilots:

  • Pilot 4.1 (mySPACE) is developing ways to monitor and model trends and states of ecosystems, integrating remote sensing maps and in-situ data in support of e.g. environmental agencies or policy makers.
  • Pilot 4.2 (mySITE) is developing ecosystem status indicators, visualising and combining in-situ and satellite data.
  • Pilot 4.3 (myVARIABLE) is developing a framework for measurements for biodiversity changes and services based on such data, coming from in-situ or remote sensing sources.

Across these pilots, data is being combined such as canopy chlorophyll concentration, land surface phenology, vegetation height, species frequency data, snow cover, land surface temperature, sea surface temperature, meteo-climate data, data from most of the Copernicus Services, data from other satellites such as Landsat, and a plethora of in-situ data.

Overall, ecosystem monitoring is a challenging opportunity. Policy makers need reliable information, and the knowledge about and positive influence on function and status of ecosystems is in the interest not only of science, but also of economy and society.

The Market Trends Observatory will monitor the evolution of market needs in this domain and enablers (technology, market or policy-related) for efficient ecosystem monitoring.