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Featured Resource: Species Habitat Index

NASA Helps Set the Bar for Global Conservation 

Decision-makers now have two map-based metrics of worldwide biodiversity health and protection thanks to NASA-funded research. These products use NASA Earth science and other data with an eye toward supporting outcomes for conservation. 

Only 3 percent of Earth’s land ecosystems remain unaltered by humans according to an April 2021 report in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. To best preserve Earth’s remaining biodiversity decision-makers need tools that can measure the effects of their actions.

To assist that effort NASA-funded scientists developed two metrics that could help provide answers, the Species Habitat Index and the Species Protection Index. They both combine biodiversity data with remote sensing data to measure overall biodiversity.

These indexes and their associated maps are designed to serve as tools that offer new ways for global leaders to monitor the current state of biodiversity and measure progress in conservation, said Walter Jetz, a Yale professor and contributor to creating both indexes.

“Remote sensing is very important because Earth-observing satellites offer one of the few ways where we have comparable measurements of the environment that have the same meaning in South Africa as they do in Hungary as they do in the United States,” Jetz said.

Because these measurements from space are similar, no matter what country is being observed, the indexes allow for direct comparisons, he added.

Overcoming Biodiversity Challenges

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference is now including these Indexes as part of their decision-making in setting new biodiversity targets. The goal is called 30x30, because participating governments, including the United States, will pledge to protect 30 percent of land and ocean areas by 2030.

For decision makers to track their progress toward meeting the 30x30 goals, they must first have a clear understanding of what counts as successful protection. Several challenges influence leaders’ abilities to measure the success of biodiversity conservation efforts. These challenges include:

  • Biodiversity is not equally distributed–three-quarters of all species that are restricted to just one location or region of the globe are distributed within just 20 countries.
  • Biodiversity is also not evenly distributed within countries, making the careful placement of new protected areas (or other effective conservation management efforts) key to effectively conserving biodiversity.
  • Many species are dependent on habitats that are protected due to international cooperation.
  • Nations do not have equal resources or political will to address biodiversity challenges.

In a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Jetz — a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of the environment at Yale University — and his colleagues suggested a way to measure success in the path to 30x30. They urged leaders to focus on the outcomes of area-based conservation, and specifically the effective safeguarding of species.

To do this, Jetz suggested, they assess and measure how much the establishment of protected areas has contributed to achieving minimum levels of biodiversity protection for a region or nation. In fact, the Species Protection Index estimates this by aggregating tens of thousands of species distribution maps derived from remote-sensing data. These species maps are an example of essential biodiversity variables. These measurements are designed to work anywhere on the globe, setting a common standard for measuring biodiversity change.

How the Species Protection Index and Species Habitat Index work

Every species has places it prefers to live in based on conditions like — vegetation, food, other nearby species. These make up a species’ habitat . With global environmental change, the conditions species live in are constantly changing. This can impact an animals’ breeding and migration habits. It can even threaten their survival.

The two indexes work together to give conservationists and governments a better understanding of how much suitable habitat exists in a region or country for a given species — and how much of that habitat is under some form of protection. Looking at this measurement aggregated for all species in an area, decision makers can track change over time to estimate the overall threat to biodiversity loss for an area, explore scenarios for protection, guide decisions, and assess progress in achieving their objectives.

Satellite data included in these indexes include that from the Landsat mission. This is combined with a range of biodiversity data to identify species’ habitats and map their changes over time. The Species Habitat Index also tracks the connectivity of habitats — whether there are isolated patches of good habitat or larger, well-connected areas species can move between. Losses and gains in habitat area or connectivity are directly related to the size and health of a population. The Species Protection Index tracks the portion of a population safeguarded through area-based conservation efforts.

Decision makers can use data from both indexes to identify areas where species are struggling or where they could most benefit from conservation action and use this to guide their management— increasing both efficiency and effectiveness.

“For each species, we assign a conservation target which is based on a number of factors,” explained Alex Killion, the managing director for the Center of Biodiversity and Global Change at Yale University. “It’s a percentage of how much of their total area we’re trying to conserve to ensure their populations are sustainable.”

The Species Protection Index measures how much suitable habitat for a single species is under protection, and then estimates the regional or global biodiversity that is represented across a protected area of land. The indicator is calculated at both the individual species level and the national level. Countries then receive a 'Species Protection Index “score” that indicates how much of the species’ habitat(s) are currently protected.

Jetz and his colleagues developed the indexes in collaboration with the GEO Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON), the National Science Foundation, the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the private companies Esri and Google Earth Engine and others.

Putting the Tools to Work 

Both indexes were formally endorsed as component indicators in the preparation materials of the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference. After the meeting concludes and goals and indicators are officially set, Jetz said that the indicator partners expect a rapidly growing need to support their use by participating countries.

To prepare for this influx of end users, Jetz and his colleagues are working with GEO BON and the Map of Life, a conservation dashboard Jetz helped develop nearly 10 years ago, to build an online space to help people share species distribution data and collaborate on conservation goals. They’re developing dashboards and tools that will allow countries to either use the indices as they are or combine them with their own data to support additional calculations.

“From an applied sciences standpoint, I think that data infrastructure is an exciting space and it’s extremely important for these data-driven indices to be applied at a global scale,” added Yale’s Alex Killion. “NASA is collecting new remote sensing data every minute, and we have developed workflows to integrate that information into regular updates so countries can monitor their progress.”

The ability to take a hybrid approach — countries adding their own data to those available in the indices — gives countries access to data on tens of thousands of species and allows them to compare it to their field data and conservation efforts. Jetz and his team hope that flexibility will empower decision makers to make more informed decisions for protecting species populations and biodiversity around the globe.

- by Jessica Sheaves, Applied Sciences Program