Monitoring biodiversity with remote sensing

BioSpace—Biodiversity monitoring with earth observation data—is a joint project of the Canadian Forest Service and the Canadian Space Agency. It uses remote sensing technology to observe the landscape, gather data on biodiversity and monitor changes—all from space.

Because the technology can scan very large areas, it is opening up many remote and formerly inaccessible regions. It is also allowing researchers to study biodiversity and track its changes on a national scale, not just locally.

BioSpace gathers data on four landscape characteristics:

  • Topography – Topographic features such as mountains strongly affect climate. Climate in turn influences the composition and growth of vegetation.
  • Productivity – BioSpace uses a concept called the Dynamic Habitat Index (DHI) to measure vegetation productivity (or “greenness”), snow cover in winter, and seasonal variations in greenness (an indication of when food is available to animals). The DHI is a valuable tool for researchers tracking changes in species composition and diversity in a given area
  • Land cover – BioSpace monitors different types of land cover, both vegetated and non-vegetated, and their spatial arrangement (e.g., whether they are continuous or fragmented).
  • Disturbance – Land cover disturbance can result from fire, insect infestation, drought or resource development. BioSpace monitors changes in landscape greenness and land surface temperature to identify disturbance patterns.

The data in all four areas are invaluable to scientists and land managers because shifts in these areas can signal shifts in biodiversity.

The benefits of BioSpace

By gathering information on regions that until now have been difficult or impossible to access, BioSpace is facilitating more accurate reporting on Canada’s biodiversity—a requirement under national and international agreements.

As well, BioSpace enables scientists to study many species at once without travelling to different locations, making the process of monitoring more affordable. Researchers and resource managers can also identify where the most critical changes are unfolding, and can focus on-site research accordingly.

By monitoring landscape indicators over time and across the country, BioSpace serves as a kind of national early warning system, showing where the biggest threats to biodiversity lie and where interventions should be targeted.