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THE STORY

#3RDEPISODE

SAVING THE EARTH
FROM THE SKYECOLOGY TAKES TO THE AIR

GREG ASNERAIRBORNE ECOLOGIST

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01

DR. GREG ASNERAIRBORNE ECOLOGIST

“We have the most advanced
airborne mapping system for
biodiversity that’s ever been devised.”

Global ecologist and earth explorer Greg Asner is the creator of the Global Airborne Observatory (GAO), a one-of-a-kind airplane equipped with high-powered lasers, imaging spectrometers and supercomputers that can map remote landscapes, from rainforests to coral reefs. Greg’s innovative technologies play a key role in monitoring the impacts of climate change at scale, whether mega-droughts in the Amazon Basin or coral-bleaching events in Hawaii. Governments and NGOs are increasingly turning to Greg for the data they need to make decisions on conservation and resource policy—decisions crucial to the future of our species and our planet.

*Greg is the director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University. The GAO is one of the Center’s programs.

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TELL US ABOUT
THE GLOBAL AIRBORNE
OBSERVATORY

It’s a Dornier 228 we converted to a high-tech laboratory. Back when it had seats in, it was a 19-passenger-size aircraft. We took all of that out and put in a very hi-tech, lightweight carbon-fiber environment. Why? Because we wanted to put all of the payload into the supercomputing and the instrument package that allows us to map land and coral reef ecosystems. The lab has a standard cockpit with two pilots and then there’s a workspace with desks and big-screen monitors where the earth scientists work, plus supercomputing racks that collect the data and manage the instrument package. In the very aft part of the plane is a big wide-open gap straddled by the instruments so they can see unobstructed the land or the ocean surface.

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WHEN DID YOU FIRST
THINK OF TAKING
ECOLOGY AIRBORNE?

I know exactly where I was at the time. It was 1993 and I was on Molokai, one of the islands of Hawaii. I was assigned to finding these rare endemic species in a mountain ecosystem but I was coming back empty-handed day after day. My boss would say to me, “Did you go over here?” “Yes, I went there.” “But did you go over here?” “Yes, I went over there.” We just weren’t getting the work done, because it was very difficult, geographically and geospatially. That’s when I made the mental leap there that we had to take to the air. We started with the traditional Cessna small-wing aircraft and a camera. That didn’t work out too well. There’s been this progression over 25 years. Now we have the most advanced airborne mapping system for biodiversity ever devised.

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WHAT SORT OF
INSTRUMENTATION
DO YOU USE?

We invented a technology called laser-guided imaging spectroscopy, or LGIS, which is based on fusing 3D laser-based data and spectral data. We fire two laser beams from the bottom of the plane. They sweep over the landscape and every time they touch something vegetative they return a few of the photons. That tells us the 3D structure of the canopy, and from that we can calculate very accurately how much carbon is in the trees. That’s then fused with an amazing technology called imaging spectroscopy which enables us to see the spectrum of light in 427 channels. Using a technique that we invented called spectranomics, we can turn these spectral signatures into identifications of species. For trees, we average 80% accuracy worldwide, flying at 80 meters per second at 7,000 feet!

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WHAT ARE
THE ADVANTAGES OF
AERIAL SURVEY?

Scale is one of the biggest challenges in environmental management. When you’re walking in a rainforest, two legs on the ground, you’re only seeing a tiny sliver of what’s going on. The trees are 50 meters tall and most of the biology is occurring at the top of the canopy. That’s where most of the primates, birds and insects are. If you’re down in the understory, you’re getting a very narrow perspective and simply not seeing it. At our altitude, we can see the entire landscape of a region and the organisms that comprise that region. We get all the detail and the scale at the same time. We can get a grip on what’s happening at the scale needed for management decisions—the scale of a national park, a county or a country.

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TELL US ABOUT
SOME OF YOUR
BIGGEST SUCCESSES.

Doing this kind of work, you’re committing yourself to decades mostly of failure, with moments of amazing success. I guess one of my bigger successes has been understanding that plants, corals and other organisms have spectral signatures that we can see from aircraft, something that lets us measure biodiversity for the first time over large scales. That’s led to successes by helping to get the right decisions made for perpetuating life and nature. In Peru, for example, in the western Amazon, we mapped where the carbon storage was and where the biodiversity was in the forests. The Peruvian government used those maps to make the decision to create Yaguas National Park, a new national park. It’s that kind of success that keeps me going every day.

02

CLIMATE CHANGE& THE FUTURE

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DESCRIBE THE IMPACT
OF CLIMATE CHANGE
ON RAINFORESTS.

Even without humans causing deforestation directly, tropical forests are changing under the indirect impacts of humans, which means climate change. We know that; we see it happening. And it’s expressed in something we call hot drought. This is a novel kind of process that in the paleo record, the scientific record, is extremely rare to non-existent, where you get extremely high temperatures and extremely low rainfall. It may persist for three or even six months and it causes these large swathes of trees to die. That’s a form of deforestation. They’re standing upright as ghosts or skeletons, for months to years, eventually they fall down and all of that carbon is decomposed and put back in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

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WHY DO WE NEED TO
SAVE THE RAINFORESTS?

There are only a few ecosystems on the planet that host most of the species. Rainforests are one of them: they’re these incredible webs of life that are historically self-sustaining. The interactions between organisms create sustainability, and the rainforests provide us with enormously important services, even say, in North America. In terms of carbon storage, they keep a massive amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, which otherwise would exacerbate this warming problem that we have, and they have a really critical function in our global hydrologic system, influencing, for example, the rainfall that we get, say, in parts of the United States. Rainforests not only serve the people that live there and protect a huge amount of the earth’s biodiversity, they regulate some of the critical functions of the entire earth system, especially carbon and water.

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HOW DOES IT FEEL
FLYING ABOVE
THE FORESTS?

You know how we watch in awe when astronauts look out the window of the space station and see the earth’s beauty? It’s mesmerizing. There’s a bit of that in my job where I get to see large expanses, but I have an advantage that an astronaut doesn’t: I can actually see the biology. I can make out the trees in the forest, not only on the computer, but even as we’re flying over in our airborne observatory. We see the details at scale and it’s magnificent. Just looking out the cockpit, I can’t see the full kaleidoscope of diversity; I need the technology for that. I’ll go into the back of the plane, get to those big screens and Wham! I’m hit with a completely new ecosystem that science never knew about.

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WHAT ROLE DOES TIME
PLAY IN YOUR WORK?

Time is the biggest challenge now. As a society, we’re not keeping up with the changes we are inducing on our ecosystems. Whether they are ecosystems close to us or faraway in the Amazon Basin, they’re all changing really fast, faster than we predicted in 2000 or 2010. In the past 25 years, my career has changed from studying ecosystems to an almost reactive, responsive-type role. My team is constantly being pulled to a new problem with new demands for help from governments and NGOs. “Help, we have this problem. We’re undergoing change and it’s so rapid we can’t get our hands around it. We need to understand what this change is and what its impacts are going to be for water, biodiversity, carbon….” It’s made my life and the lives of my staff very hectic.

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IS IT TOO LATE TO SAVE
THE NATURAL WORLD?

It’s not too late. You hear a lot about deforestation in the tropics, like in the Amazon Basin. It’s true we’re losing vast areas of the Amazonian rainforest. The good news is that those losses pale in comparison to what’s still remaining in those forests. The forest is vast. We still have time to make the right decisions to save what’s left. The same goes for coral reefs. We hear all about coral reefs dying worldwide. In Hawaii in 2015 we had a heat wave that killed about 30% of our corals and coral reefs are in critical danger today. But we still have vast areas of coral reef that are still intact and we can still do something about that.

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WHAT CAN WE DO?

Contributing to
your community and
its environmental well-being.

We know that we need roughly 30%
in the minimum of
natural systems to
sustain the broader earth system.
If we’re at 10% or 20%
natural systems,
the disruption to the climate is
too large for us to handle.

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WHAT LARGE-SCALE
ACTIONS
DO WE NEED TO TAKE?

The first thing that has to happen is protections. We have to take certain parts of the biosphere off the table. The scientific community has figured where and how much you need to take off the table in terms of deforestation and development. We call them “rapid stabilization actions.” We need to do that now. We know that we need roughly 30% in the minimum of natural systems to sustain the broader earth system. If we’re at 10% or 20% natural systems, the disruption to the climate is too large for us to handle. Second thing, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on restoration. Restoration can actually generate livelihoods, poverty-reduction, political stability, all kinds of good things. These are all areas that need work now at scale. We know how to do it, but a global effort is needed.

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WHAT CAN PEOPLE
DO AT THE
INDIVIDUAL LEVEL?

The number one thing is: Don’t let it end at Facebook and Twitter. Go beyond sharing the information. Get out there and contribute. Everybody can contribute. It sounds clichéd, but in my position, I see the whole system function. It’s the tragedy of the commons. Everybody’s contributing to the problem but aren’t contributing to the solution. As consumers, we need to focus on supply chains. We must understand that our day-to-day purchases often trace back to tropical rainforests. Plus contributing to your community and its environmental well-being—these are all real things that people can be doing. If everybody does their role, we will be way better off. People will emerge—new scientists, new policy decision-makers—that will take us on bigger leaps forward. It has to start with everybody’s participation; then the super-participants will emerge out of that.

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HOW ARE YOU PLANNING
TO SCALE UP
YOUR ACTIVITIES?

Going forward I think a lot of our success will come by combining our aircraft program with satellites, so we can scale up and do the entire planet as it’s needed today. Time is really short. We’ve got to be doing this now. It can’t wait even 10 years. We have to be scaling up and understanding what’s happening to ecosystems so that decision-makers can make those critical choices for saving different parts of the biosphere and its biodiversity.

To do that we have to have a lot lined up: one thing is aerospace partners, another is organizations, whether they’re non-profits or governments or the UN, to utilize the data at those scales. I’m just now finishing a plan that does that. It’s called the Global Biodiversity Observatory.

GREG ASNERAIRBORNE ECOLOGIST

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