By Hope Steadman (she/her)
In October, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the Emperor Penguin a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The sea ice they need to breed, find food and survive is being threatened by climate change, with predictions of a decline between 26-47% in population size by 2050 (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2022). This is reflective of a growing ‘extinction crisis’ in which the combined impacts of rising temperatures, overfishing and the breakup of sea ice may one day cause the beloved animal to disappear (Grandoni, 2022).
The size of animal populations has long been a useful tool to monitor the extent of climate change, with declines raising early alarms - like canaries in a coalmine. Some believe the Earth is in the midst of a ‘Sixth Extinction’ due to the significant impact of humans on the flora and fauna of our planet (Kolbert, 2014). Within Earth Systems Science, there’s debates ongoing as to whether we have entered a whole new epoch termed the Anthropocene, due to the significant rupture in earth's history caused by human-induced climate change.
The media has often communicated the impact of climate change through the decline of animal populations to get across the urgency of the issue, with the Polar Bear fast becoming the poster child of modern environmentalism. The role of environmental monitoring, then, is of great importance. How can we understand the impact we’re having on the animals we share the planet with? This article will explore how technologies are being used in exciting ways to capture the impacts of climate damage, before questioning the extent of their usefulness for the future. Three examples have been chosen to discuss here, namely bioacoustics, eDNA and citizen sensing, although many more forms exist.
Monitoring animal populations and the impact of climate change
There’s been a recent surge in the use of audio sensing techniques to capture information about animal populations and the habitats they are living in. This is termed ‘bioacoustics’, with audio sensors often combined with AI in order to detect the ‘fingerprint’ of different species (Bakker, 2022). Sound has had a long history of helping us to understand our world, particularly since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an exploration into the decline of birdsong with the rise of pesticides.
Earlier this year, the Global Library of Underwater Biological Sounds (GLUBS) announced their plans to gather marine sounds in order to capture the extent to which climate change has altered habitats, animal numbers, weather patterns and how wildlife communicates with each other, in ways humans can otherwise never understand (Mitchell, 2022). The Sound Ocean Science organisation has also found that as oceans heat up, shrimp are making more noise, which may be disrupting how other fish are able to acoustically communicate (ibid.). Yale Environment 360 recently interviewed Karan Bakker, a geographer who has studied the use of bioacoustics in conservation (Jones, 2022). On the impact of climate change on animal sound, she said -
“If it’s hotter and drier, birds have a harder time singing into the dawn; sound travels further when it’s humid. And animals move. They become climate refugees looking for new habitat, no longer making sound in the places they used to. Some places go very quiet. Noise pollution is like a pea soup fog: we cannot see our hand in front of our face. Climate change is like introducing a lot of static into the cell phone network.”
A field increasing rapidly in popularity, bioacoustics may be able to tell us much about the ways in which the everyday lives of animals are being deeply impacted by climate change, in ways in which we never would have understood before.
Another technique that’s being used in environmental monitoring is the collection of environmental DNA (eDNA). As animals move through their environments, they leave DNA traces behind which scientists are now starting to collect, sample and sequence. Ever-increasing digital ‘DNA libraries’ are being formed to enable fast and accurate cataloguing of species, and compare results over time to understand the impact of climate change across entire ecosystems.
In a recent pilot study in the UK, Forest Research were able to collect soil samples and connect the information gathered on worms with intensive forest management (Forest Research, 2022). UNESCO also launched a global study of eDNA within marine environments in 2021 to study the impact of climate change on marine biodiversity within World Heritage Sites over the next two years (UNESCO, 2021). While still in its infancy, eDNA studies are aiming to build an open-source database of animal DNA, an ‘International Barcode of Life’ which all conservation scientists can benefit from in their future environmental monitoring (ibol, 2022).
The role of citizens or local people in environmental monitoring is advocated for frequently, and has seen a huge increase in popularity as of late. This is termed ‘citizen science’ or ‘citizen sensing’, in which the everyday person is able to report their findings about biodiversity to the scientific community to help enrich studies.
The rise of environmental mobile apps characterises the push for citizens to submit data about the flora and fauna they find in their local environment. For example, the iNaturalist app uses photos and observations of nature collected from the community to understand where plants are being lost, and how they’re coping with a warming environment and rising sea levels (Altrudi, 2021). The eBird app asks communities to upload bird sightings, with data being used to inform lawmaking and protections put in place in certain parts of the world (eBird, 2022). There are apps which ask users to reflect on hayfever symptoms and track this against pollution levels; apps which ask you to connect sensors to your phone to monitor air quality; apps which allow you to submit whale sightings to avoid collisions with fishing vessels - the list is endless and ever-growing.
Citizen science has also been used as a partner to other forms of technology, particularly in the training of AI. For example, Forest Research recently asked forest managers to report the occurrence of windfell trees in Scotland after Storm Arwen, in order to understand how accurate their previous modelling was, which was built using remote sensing and machine learning algorithms (Forest Research, 2021). Returning to the humble penguin, a web platform has been developed enabling users to count how many penguins they can see in photos taken by remote time-lapse cameras in Antarctica, hosted on the ‘Zooniverse’ citizen science website. The data is used to train their AI algorithm so it can count penguins itself, help to understand the rate of decline of penguin populations and understand the extent of sea ice collapse (Zooniverse, 2022). This ‘people-powered research’ is vital in monitoring the impacts of climate change using simple tech.
Questions for the future
There’s no doubt that these are exciting innovations, but it’s worth raising some of the issues, or unresolved questions, that these technologies bring up.
In monitoring animals using technology, it’s interesting to reflect on how humans relate to nature. Some see technological representations of animals as reductionist, and unable to capture the real extent of the value lost when climate change damages animal populations. For example, many indigenous populations value animals on a more spiritual level, relating to them as kin to be respected and cared for. Restricting the monitoring of the environment to a technical representation then can potentially mask the other qualities that climate change will be damaging.
Ethical issues are also vital to reflect on. For example, some eDNA monitoring is being used to detect the occurrence of invasive species, which are then culled or removed from a habitat. Is it ethical to use this data to more efficiently kill species humans have introduced? Some would argue not. How do we manage eDNA collection when humans are also using these habitats? In the case of bioacoustics, Karen Bakker has convincingly argued -
It’s very important to mention that this comes along with a commitment to data sovereignty: we have to rethink the way in which we harvest the data from places, which are often territories under Indigenous ownership and stewardship. The Maori for example, have outlined a convincing legal argument that Maori data should be subject to Maori governance. And that includes the electromagnetic spectrum. That includes sound. (Jones, 2022)
In the case of eDNA and UNESCO’s 2 year programme, UNESCO suggests there are limited regulations or methodological processes to follow, and that these will be developed during the course of the programme (UNESCO, 2021). Such learn-by-doing approaches create concerns about data reliability, the ethics of governance and the potential damage to environments which could occur from unregulated experimental approaches.
Citizen science also poses a number of questions. Who is able to participate in citizen science projects concerning climate change? Whose voices are heard and whose are excluded? Issues of digital exclusion and barriers to mobile phone and internet use mean that potentially the more marginalised members of the community will be less able to engage. This risks environmental monitoring and climate change policy being based on a narrow set of perceptions and observations from a limited set of spatial and social scales.
Finally, the role of Big Tech must be explored. Large private corporations are often involved in bioacoustics applications, but without strict data protocols in place. Questions emerge like - who is benefiting from the rise in environmental technologies? Could technologies of surveillance like apps and bioacoustics be used to surveil humans? Could environmental monitoring be used by private corporations and governments to find better places to fish and more forests to fell?
There is huge potential for technologies in environmental monitoring, and it’s a role that simply cannot be ignored or overlooked given the urgency of our climate crisis. Many of the technologies discussed here are in their infancy, without clear governance and law in place to ensure the ethical, moral and scientific collection of environmental data. But without environmental monitoring, we would not be able to designate the penguin a threatened species, or implement solutions to reduce sea level change and protect the animals on this planet. Understanding that we are in an ‘extinction crisis’ because of the significant impact of climate change is the first step in defining how we will protect biodiversity going forward.
As more governments are calling for better environmental monitoring, innovation and technological advancement, 2023 looks like it will be an interesting and exciting year for better understanding the impacts of climate change on our Earthly companions.
Altrudi, S. (2021) ‘Connecting to nature through tech? The case of the iNaturalist app’ Convergence, 27(1), pp.124–141.
Bakker, K. (2022) ‘Listening to the tree of life’, Princeton University Press, November 2 [online] Available at: https://press.princeton.edu/ideas/listening-to-the-tree-of-life
eBird (2022) ‘Research and conservation applications’ [online] Available at: https://science.ebird.org/en/research-and-conservation [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
Forest Research (2021) ‘New citizen science app launched’ [online] Available at: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/news/115159-new-citizen-science-app-launched/ [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
Forest Research (2022) ‘Research highlights 2021-2022’ [online] Available at: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/about-forest-research/annual-reports-and-corporate-plans/research-highlights-2021-2022/ [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
Grandoni, D. (2022) ‘Climate change threatens emperor penguins with extinction, officials say’, Washington Post, October 25 [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/10/25/emperor-penguins-threatened-extinction-climate/ [Accessed: 9 November 2022]
ibol (2022) ‘International Barcode of Life’ [online] Available at: https://ibol.org/ [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
Jones, N. (2022) ‘How Digital Technology Is Helping Decode the Sounds of Nature’, Yale Environment 360, November 1 [online] Available at: https://e360.yale.edu/features/bioacoustics-nature-sounds-digital-technology [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
Kolbert, E. (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. London: Bloomsbury
Mitchell, A. (2022) ‘Bioacoustics: What nature’s sounds can tell us about the health of our world’, Canadian Geographic, August 12 [online] Available at: https://canadiangeographic.ca/articles/bioacoustics-what-natures-sounds-can-tell-us-about-the-health-of-our-world/ [Accessed: 9 November 2022]
UNESCO (2021) ‘UNESCO launches global eDNA project to study vulnerability of species to climate change at marine World Heritage sites’ [online] Available at: https://ioc.unesco.org/news/unesco-launches-global-edna-project-study-vulnerability-species-climate-change-marine-world [Accessed: 9 Nov 2022]
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2022) ‘U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Provides Endangered Species Act Protections for Emperor Penguin’, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, October 25 [online] Available at: https://www.fws.gov/press-release/2022-10/emperor-penguin-gets-endangered-species-act-protections [Accessed: 9 November 2022]
Zooniverse (2022) ‘Penguin Watch’ [online] Available at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/penguin-watch/about/research [Accessed 9 Nov 2022]