Ever since the agricultural revolution, we have been designing increasingly clever ways to strip the world of its natural resources – usually ways that pollute, deplete and degrade the ecosystems we rely on. But today, we’re using tech around the world to repair some of the damage – with amazing results.
Dangers like getting tangled up in fishing gear, colliding with ships, ingesting plastics, and becoming disorientated by underwater noise pollution are all taking their toll on whale and dolphin numbers. And climate change is having a serious effect too.
As prey animals move around in response to changing ocean temperatures, it becomes harder for these big marine mammals to find food.
But today, technology is helping to make their world safer. By tracking satellite tags attached to hundreds of whales worldwide, the Protecting Blue Corridors project is giving researchers a much clearer picture of the migratory routes whales follow.
Tagging the Bolivian river dolphin © Jaime Rojo / WWF US
It also highlights where these routes might intersect with threats to the whales, like shipping lanes, both now and in the future.
The same technology is helping scientists study river dolphins in the Amazon, Yangtse and Indus rivers.
On large waterways like these, pollution, hydroelectric dams and structures that divert water for irrigation can all pose a serious threat to dolphins.
By monitoring them more closely, researchers can devise solutions to the problems these elusive creatures face.
Our current approach to large-scale farming is unsustainable.
Clearing huge areas of land to create fields for a single crop destroys biodiversity. Herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer damage ecosystems well beyond the farm’s boundaries.
A far better approach is to raise several different crops alongside habitats for wildlife and even livestock, all on the same land, at the same time. In this way, farms become biodiverse environments that support the species that pollinate plants, eat pests and fertilize the soil.
This is where smart new technologies come in. For example, sensors in the soil can now gather data on nutrients and water levels, and drones can monitor the health of crops from above.
This information is then shared with field robots that identify crop plants and apply the precise amount of water or fertilizer they need.
The technology needed to achieve this is already out there. At the Lelystad ‘Farm of the future’ in the Netherlands, researchers are using robots, sensor technology and driverless vehicles to improve soil, reduce the impact on our climate and increase biodiversity.
Smart, technology-driven thinking is also making a difference right now in India. Farmers in some remote parts of the country are using solar-powered cold storage capsules to preserve their produce and reduce food waste.
Monitoring water levels
There is no natural resource more precious than fresh water. But in some places, it’s becoming an increasingly scarce commodity.
Thanks to deforestation, climate change and the demands of a growing population, Brazil’s surface water has shrunk by 15% in less than three decades. We only know this because of the MapBiomas water project.
MapBiomas processed over 150,000 images taken by Nasa’s Landsat 5, 7 and 8 satellites between 1985 and 2020. Together, the images cover 850 million hectares of Brazilian territory.
Using AI and Machine Learning, the team was able to analyse water changes in great detail over vast areas and draw meaningful conclusions.
Global Water Watch is another project that provides vital information on a large scale.
Exploiting the power of AI and complex algorithms, it produces high-resolution data on the amount of water in reservoirs and major river systems, almost in real time.
Anybody can access this information, free of charge. This allows people in power to make informed decisions on the best way to manage climate change and respond to extreme weather events, like floods and droughts.
The fire seasons in Australia are getting longer and the intensity of the fires is increasing.
In 2019 and 2020, devastating blazes killed or displaced three billion mammals, birds and reptiles. They also destroyed or damaged around seven billion trees across 15 million hectares.
Koala that has come down from a tree after a bush fire, Victoria, Australia. © naturepl.com / Doug Gimesy / WWF
Flying to the rescue is a company called AirSeed Technologies, whose specialised drones can plant up to 40,000 seeds per day.
They also carry out "monitoring and proactive protection" work, using the drones’ AI to identify which species have successfully established and which haven't.
The upshot is a system that can restore land 25 times more quickly than traditional planting, at a fraction of the cost.
It is clear that technology is already providing us with many of the tools we need to successfully monitor, model and manage our natural resources in a more sustainable way. As robots, AI and Machine Learning improve, there’s real hope that the prospects for people and nature will too.