UB, NASA, partners begin mapping South Africa’s biodiversity from the air

Scientists collect vegetation data from the Cape of Good Hope, Western Cape, South Africa.

Scientists collect vegetation data from the Cape of Good Hope, Western Cape, South Africa. Photo: © Adam M. Wilson

By Tom Dinki

NASA’s advanced remote sensing technology can analyze the chemical composition of stars and search for signs of life in the cosmos. 

It can also tell us a lot about our own planet, like the amount of nitrogen in a forest canopy or the diversity of phytoplankton in a river.

Over the next few weeks, NASA aircraft will fly over South Africa’s Greater Cape Floristic Region and collect ultraviolet, visual, thermal and other imagery of its terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. These preliminary images will be publicly available and posted online here within hours of the aircraft landing each day. 

Combined with satellite imagery and field work, the aircraft imagery will give scientists an unprecedented look into one of the Earth’s biodiversity hotspots, and potentially lay the foundation for monitoring biodiversity across the globe from space.

“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis — losing species globally far above historical rates — and we know that biodiversity is critical for keeping Earth habitable,” says Adam Wilson, a UB biogeographer and mission scientist on the project, titled BioSCape. “These new data will give us a deeper understanding of ecosystem composition and help us learn how they will respond to environmental change.”

NASA aircraft to map biodiversity

BioSCape, co-funded by NASA and South Africa’s National Research Foundation, is a collaboration between approximately 150 U.S. and South African scientists. Wilson received $1.3 million in NASA funding for his share of the project.

Two NASA aircraft will take to the skies to collect the data. The Gulfstream V aircraft began flying Oct. 20 and will complete its mission on Nov. 15. The other, the Gulfstream III aircraft, began flying Oct. 22 and will complete its mission near the end of November. You can track the flights of the GIII here and the GV here.

The two aircraft are outfitted with a combination of sensors, including spectrometers and laser altimeter scanners, that each provide a different set of data, from sea surface temperatures to 3-D images of vegetation.

The area they’re mapping, the Greater Cape Floristic Region, is located in the southwest corner of Africa and known for its rich animal and vegetative diversity. For example, the region covers less than 0.5% of Africa but harbors nearly 20% of the continent’s plant species. 

In fact, the region is so biodiverse, researchers say it’s one of the most challenging places they could have chosen to conduct their project. 

“If we can figure out how to do this here, we will enable similar science in many other places around the world and help to support global efforts to halt biodiversity loss and protect nature’s contributions to people,” says co-principal investigator Erin Hestir, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced. 

BioSCape project.

The BioSCape project is an important step toward monitoring ecosystems across the globe from space.

UB scientists conduct field work in South Africa

The project will also rely on data collected from a new imaging spectrometer (EMIT) currently aboard the International Space Station that was developed in part by BioSCape team members.

Other team members like Wilson, associate professor in the Department of Geography, who is currently in Cape Town, South Africa, have been conducting field work since earlier this year. Some of this work includes measuring plants’ spectral reflectance, recording bird and insect calls, and extracting environmental DNA from water samples. 

As for the images from above, the hope is that they will be available online within about 12 hours of the aircraft landing. The full data should then be available within a few months of the project concluding. It will be stored on a NASA repository and openly accessible.

“The data will be publicly available for the global community to ask new questions, while members of the BioSCape team will use the data over the next few years to publish numerous studies on their particular focus areas,” Wilson says. 

Government agencies and other organizations in South Africa may also use the data to address conservation challenges. Researchers have already held two workshops to explore ways their research outputs could be more applicable to the needs of local decision-makers.

A meteorological station in the Anysberg Mountains, Western Cape, South Africa.

A meteorological station in the Anysberg Mountains, Western Cape, South Africa. BioScape will researchers improve their ability to map and monitor ecosystem status from above. Photo: © Adam M. Wilson

International collaboration is key

About half of the BioSCape science team are affiliated with South African institutions, something that was crucial to achieve for the team’s U.S. scientists.  

“We would not be able to do this project without our South African collaborators and their expertise on the local ecosystems. We hope this project can serve as an example of how to conduct top-tier, international science while engaging researchers and institutions from across a wide spectrum of institutions. Developing solutions to global problems requires international collaboration,” Wilson says.

Other members of the leadership team include co-principal investigator Jasper Slingsby of the University of Cape Town, and science team manager Anabelle Cardoso, postdoctoral researcher, and applications coordinator Cherie Forbes, research scientist, both in the UB Department of Geography.

This is the first time NASA has funded a project of this size focused on biodiversity, researchers say. They note the tools being used in the project, such as spectrometers, are the same ones NASA uses to study other planets and stars outside our solar system. 

“We can turn this technology back toward Earth and use it to understand our own planet, which is a pretty nice place to be compared to all the other places in the universe,” Wilson says. “The quest to find life in other parts of the universe is important, but we've also got a pretty amazing planet right here.”

Published October 30, 2023

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