Historical data to inform future conservation

My research addresses the urgent need of understanding how human-environment interactions impact ecosystems, species and society over long time periods, in order to inform sustainable management and conservation into the future. My work relies on integrating geodata across broad spatial and temporal scales to investigate century long drivers and effects of land use, and I give particular attention to often overseen processes such as legacy effects and time-delayed responses. Notably, my work has pioneered the use of globally available Cold War spy satellite data to inform ecology and conservation.

Three overarching themes guide my work:

1. Assessing the drivers and outcomes of long term land-use change

2. Explore the role and choice of baselines for land use and conservation science

3. Quantify the shifting baseline syndrome and its implications for ecology and conservation

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Project Summary

EcoSpy: Leveraging the potential of historical spy satellite photography for ecology and conservation

Conservation planning and action critically relies on information about the dynamics in ecosystems, habitats, and species’ populations in order to define baselines, set conservation targets, and to identify areas for protection and restoration activities. Remote sensing is key technology for providing information to conservation, but many world regions experienced widespread changes in habitats and species populations prior to modern remote sensing (1980s). In EcoSpy we pioneered the broad-scale use of recently declassified historical, global, high resolution spy satellite photographs from the Cold War era (Corona) to extend the temporal scale of ecological and conservation remote sensing studies as far back as the 1960s. We integrated Corona with Landsat and Google Earth Images in three proof-of-concept studies to test the usability of Corona data for conservation research and applications. We assessed the changes in ecosystems of conservation concern, by identifying long-undisturbed forests in Romania, changes in human pressure on steppe ecosystems in Kazakhstan and changes in a keystone species’ population in the Kazakhs steppe. We are currently carrying out a synthesis study on uses and benefits of Corona imagery for ecology and conservation worldwide. EcoSpy is deeply interdisciplinary, located at the intersection of ecology, conservation science and remote sensing. Scientifically, EcoSpy enhanced the long-term understanding of ecological processes such as land use legacies and time delayed effects and extended the use of high resolution remotely sensed data by two decades. Historical remote sensing data can be a valuable source of information on historical ecosystem states and for informing conservation.

Planned Research

The role of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome in Conservation

Environmental change is accelerating. Conservation and land management aim to alleviate the negative effects of environmental change by restoring ecosystems to historical conditions (i.e. baselines). But the phenomenon called “Shifting Baselines Syndrome” (SBS) poses an important and widely understudied barrier to conservation. SBS may cause individuals to misperceive the actual magnitude of environmental change, because they evaluate change in relation to their own life experiences. SBS may be driven by a combination of lacking historical information, mis-communicated scientific outcomes and the human’s innate capacity to adapt to changing conditions. Although SBS may be an important component of adapting to change, it may also cause humans to unintentionally contribute to environmental degradation without even realizing it. This is why, it is imperative that we understand the extent that SBS may disconnect us from historical conditions. We can only make sustainable management and conservation decisions for the future if we first understand whether and how far our baselines have shifted. In my future work I will bringing together approaches across applied ecology, social sciences, remote sensing and geography to answer a pressing sustainability question: how can knowledge about the past inform and guide sustainable decision making for the future?