Satellites are amazing inventions. They do so much for us in our day to day lives and we usually aren’t aware that they even exist.
From beaming down images of distant planets to scientists to showing us our final destination on Google Maps, satellites silently provide us with support we didn’t know we needed.
Thousands of satellites orbit Earth, creating hundreds of terabytes of data that is freely available, and part of Ed Mitchard’s work involves deciphering and using it for terrain mapping.
“My scientific research focuses on developing new methods for using satellite data to map how the world’s forests are changing due to human activity and climate change,” Mitchard told DIGIT ahead of the IA2020 event.
Alongside his research group, Mitchard has made some important developments, such as methods to map changes in forest carbon stocks and monitoring tropical peatlands using radar and lidar satellites not designed for that purpose.
The team’s work is fast becoming an important part of tracking the effects of climate change, and important people are beginning to take notice.
“We are getting repeated requests from companies, NGOs and governments to use these methods to make good maps of land cover change and carbon stock change using satellite data,” Mitchard said.
“The university system is not well set up to answer such requests – it is more about researching new methods than applying current ones – so with encouragement from our University a colleague and I set up Space Intelligence in 2018,” he added.
Having studied at the University of Edinburgh, Mitchard now sits as Chair of Global Change Mapping. Leading a research group of four Postdocs and four PhD students, the team uses Earth Observation (satellite and drone) data to map and monitor Earth’s changing tropical forests and peat swamps.
The group is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant, several UK Natural Environment Research Council awards, and the Leverhulme Trust, as well as the UK and European Space Agencies.
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In terms of real-world applications, Space Intelligence covers countries and areas around the world, but Mitchard is also happy to be applying the technology closer to home.
Commenting on the organisation’s Scottish projects, he said: “We have recently completed a project funded by the Scottish Government as part of their ‘AI for Good’ programme, aimed at helping Scottish Natural Heritage accurately quantify Scotland’s Natural Capital.
As part of the work, Mitchard’s team produced a 20-class map of the landcover types over the Cairngorm National Park, tracking the value to the country provided by the different landcover types. The hope is to be able to repeat this annually and across Scotland.
“In general, we are very positive about efforts to re-wild and reforest Scotland, which will both trap carbon and improve the natural environment for people and wildlife, and hope to be able to support these efforts with high-quality mapping/monitoring services and decision support tools,” he said.
It is clear that Mitchard’s satellite mapping is perfect for small projects such as those in Scotland, but his team are now starting to apply it to one of the plant’s most important issues – deforestation.
“It seems incredible that even in 2020 we’re still clearing about 10 million hectares of tropical forest each year – considerably more than in the 1990s or 2000s. That is about the area of South Korea, and considerably larger than the area of Scotland (about 7.5 million hectares),” Mitchard posited.
Forests are some of the most important producers of oxygen and consumers of carbon dioxide on our planet. The Amazon Rainforest is by far the largest, and It is estimated that 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced there.
However, it is believed that, within 100 years, there will be no rainforest left due to soil erosion, floods, wildlife extinction, the increase in global warming, and climate imbalance.
“We know that forests store a lot of carbon,” Mitchard explains, “so cutting them down releases this into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming and, even worse, the uncleared forest is currently taking up the excess carbon we’re releasing through burning fossil fuels (and forest) – obviously something it cannot do once cut down.
He continued: “Many international agreements have called for ending deforestation: for example, the New York Declaration on Forests signed in 2014 called to halve deforestation by 2020, and end it by 2030, and even more ambitiously the Sustainable Development Goals aimed to halt deforestation entirely by 2020.
“These have not been met – indeed despite Covid, 2020 might be the year with the most tropical deforestation ever.”
This is an area where satellite data can come into play. Space Intelligence is aiding organisations and governments to monitor deforestation and habitat changes, enabling them to ensure their supply chains are genuinely ‘deforestation-free’.
Additionally, the firm is working on projects that aim to protect areas of forest in return for carbon credits (so-called ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, REDD, projects) are working.
Mitchard explained: “Satellite data is clearly essential here, and machine learning is what powers our product production, enabling us to produce reliable forest change maps from dense stacks of satellite data from a variety of sensors with different geometries, features and artefacts – most notably cloud cover.
“An area of development for us and others in this space is around monitoring forest degradation – this is where some trees are removed from an area, but not all, for example for selective logging or to take out trees for construction or to grow shade crops, e.g. coffee or cacao.”
He added: “While releasing carbon directly, such degraded land is often ultimately deforested over the coming years – thus being able to map it reliably could help prevent this ultimate loss. But mapping degradation is a real challenge, with solutions likely involving combinations of satellite sensors, and AI/ML finding the signal among the noise.”
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But how much impact is the team’s work having, and how have they been able to deliver actionable insights and positive outcomes using their satellite data?
“The detail of many of our contracts are unfortunately confidential: but certainly, we believe we have had a positive impact,” Mithcard said.
“For example, we have helped companies choose between competing carbon offset projects in the tropics, selecting the projects with the highest potential for carbon sequestration, and have helped Scottish Natural Heritage to quantify the natural capital of Scotland, which may ultimately help decision making processes and incentives to improve this further (for example through restoring degraded peatlands).
He continued: “We set up Space Intelligence to try to ensure the latest satellite technology was being efficiently and effectively used to help preserve and restore the world’s ecosystems and fight climate change.
“There is a deluge of satellite data being collected right now – hundreds of terabytes a day are beamed back to Earth by satellites. It needs nimble AI companies to use these data effectively in many different ways to help combat climate change – I don’t think companies are even scratching the surface of what’s possible with satellite data at the moment.”