New NASA project aims to make nature’s value visible from space

Comfort Dankwa, pictured above, weeds her cassava crop at first light. A new partnership between NASA and Conservation International will help measure the value of nature, including crops. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Natural capital — the sources of the benefits that nature provides, such as flood control, carbon storage and biodiversity — makes up almost half of the wealth in developing nations, according to a report published earlier this year by the World Bank.

Low-income countries are often the most reliant on natural capital, and the most at risk of losing it to unsustainable development and population growth. To gauge your impact on nature, you have to measure it.

That’s where NASA comes in.

Through a new three-year partnership between the U.S. space agency and Conservation International, the two organizations will map ecosystems to measure natural capital, giving decision-makers the information they need to grow sustainably. Here, Daniel Juhn, vice president at the Moore Center for Science at Conservation International, explains to Human Nature how this partnership helps countries answer the question: How do we grow without degrading the nature we depend on?

Question: What is unique about this initiative?

Answer: At its core, NASA and Conservation International are working to collect accurate and current data to assess the value that nature brings to people. That’s what is exciting about partnering with NASA, we can begin to assess nature with powerful technology and create the data sets or accounts necessary to value it.

But let’s take a step back. More countries than ever are realizing that they haven’t been considering the value of nature in their decisions, which is absolutely to our detriment. In order to understand the value of nature, we first have to measure it.

Satellite image, Tanzania

Landsat 8 captured these natural-color images of Lake Natron and its surroundings in Tanzania. (© NASA Earth Observatory)

Q: How do you begin to measure something like that?    

A: When we’re talking about measuring nature and the challenge that countries face to comprehensively understand its value in their development, that’s a daunting undertaking. Where do you even start? Well, one way to start is with the power of satellite imagery and maps.

While satellite imagery is readily available, it’s primarily limited to land-cover maps. Maps that capture ecosystems, however — maps that help us measure the stocks and flows of nature, and the benefits it provides to people — are still a challenge.

This partnership is pushing the boundaries on how to map ecosystems more effectively, more accurately and repeatedly. NASA and Conservation International will map land ecosystems in Africa, taking inventory of the natural capital, and with that data, economists can calculate the value of ecosystems and the services they provide to humanity. This enables decision-makers to see country-wide trends in order to build more effective policy, evaluate the effects of policies and to better plan for and achieve their Sustainable Development Goals.

Q: Can you give us an example?

A: Okay, let’s look at Africa: I think it’s well known that the continent faces enormous challenges with population growth and food security. Changes in land use and climate affect productivity on the continent, and there is a recognition that we need to tackle these problems in a common language, both literally and figuratively.

 The future of the continent depends on dramatically improving the way the natural resource base is managed. To do that successfully, we need better ways of understanding the various ecosystems and how they contribute to human well-being and livelihoods.

The good news is, there is tremendous awareness and commitment from African leaders who recognize that a sustainable future relies on being able to account for nature’s contribution to human well-being. The member countries of Gaborone Declaration for Sustainable Development in Africa (GDSA), for example, are embracing the notion that the path to sustainable development relies on accounting for nature’s value.

Atlas V rocket

Atlas V rocket, pictured above, with Landsat Data Continuity Mission spacecraft onboard, prepares for launch Feb. 10, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (© NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Q: Where exactly do the maps fit in?

A: Not many people know the extent to which NASA Earth Sciences has been a major actor in the field of conservation and sustainable development. I would argue that Landsat and the satellite archives made available to the public has been one of the most important instrument in conservation planning and management. There have been so many advances in making spatial data available for the global good and NASA has been at the forefront.

Combining the vision and leadership of the Africa-led GDSA with the strengths of Conservation International, NASA and other partners, we can resolve some of the key challenges in ecosystem mapping by measuring the value of nature and working with countries to develop the information needed to achieve their sustainable development goals. Eventually, the goal is to make this process available throughout sub-Saharan Africa, an area that’s particularly vulnerable to climate change — and particularly reliant on nature for survival.

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Q: So what’s next?

A: Looking at trends over time provides insight for decision-making. If you integrate your observations into a common framework (the common language I mentioned earlier), you begin to truly understand how ecosystems, agriculture and land can be managed to support people’s livelihoods. You get a clear picture, consistently, over time. I am really excited that the world is working together to begin standardizing our approaches to valuing ecosystems and their services, which is the information countries to need to make sustainable development a reality. We’re at a critical juncture: The global population is growing, we’re putting more demands than ever on our natural resources and climate change is happening — now.

Daniel Juhn is the vice president at the Moore Center for Science at Conservation International. Tim Noviello is the director for marketing and communications at the Moore Center for Science at Conservation International.

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