Technology for Biology: Preserving Biodiversity
In 2009, a group of globally respected scientists identified the nine critical planetary processes that determine the stability and resilience of Earth’s ability to support life: stratospheric ozone levels, biodiversity, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, climate change, the freshwater cycle, changes in land use, excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil and oceans, and aerosols in the atmosphere. The scientists also set up metrics to determine at what point any of these processes would be so far out of balance that they would risk creating abrupt, massive, and potentially irreversible changes to the environment. The resulting concept of “planetary boundaries” gives us the limits within which humanity has to stay if it hopes to continue thriving.
The biodiversity boundary is now perilously close to being breached.
Biodiversity refers to the variety of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other forms of life in a specific geographic area, from a small patch of land to the entire planet. Every organism and species in that area is part of an intricate web of connections known as an ecosystem. An ecosystem works as a whole to support the life within it by purifying water, cycling nutrients, regulating the climate, controlling pests, pollinating and spreading plants, and so forth.
The habitat loss from agricultural and industrial expansion, overexploitation of natural resources, destruction from pollution and excess waste (notably plastics accumulating in the oceans), and the spread of invasive species are compounding the effects of climate change – to the point where the scientific community agrees that human activity is not just destroying wildlands but causing a mass extinction event across the planet.
Hundreds of animal species will probably vanish forever in the next 20 years, and as many as 1 million of the 8 million known plants and animals will become endangered. The problem is especially acute in places like tropical rainforests, which have the widest variety of species as well as the highest rate of habitat destruction. But a ripple effect, in which any change in the complex web of an ecosystem forces changes throughout it, endangers the planet-wide systems that meet humanity’s basic needs, like food, shelter, and fuel.
Biodiversity as good business
Keeping the planet within the biodiversity boundary is vital, urgent work – not least because it’s hard to have a healthy business without a healthy planet to do business on. It will require us to develop technologies that can help us identify the areas most at risk, report on wildlife status at global and hyper-local levels, and begin to restore damaged ecosystems.
The challenge will demand massive investment and effort – but just as the space race generated technological leaps that made their way to consumers as products we now take for granted, like freeze-dried foods and cordless tools, this scientific quest will undoubtedly give rise to innovative, sustainable consumer products and services. In fact, the World Economic Forum says that if businesses start to put nature first now, they’ll create 395 million new jobs by 2030 and generate US$10.1 trillion a year in business opportunities.
And, of course, taking action will also help fend off environmental catastrophe – something that customers care deeply about.
Global collaborations to spot and solve problems at scale
With the current mass extinction underway and possibly even accelerating, researchers, businesses, and the public are working together to create solutions to drive understanding and action worldwide. These are a few notable current efforts:
- The Rainforest XPrize
Rainforests are vanishing faster than we can catalog the undiscovered species their destruction will wipe out. The next XPrize competition is giving teams of citizen scientists five years to develop autonomous devices capable of assessing rainforests’ biodiversity from ground to treetops in just eight hours and analyze the data in another 48 hours. The goal is to help people understand just how valuable rainforests are and how critical it is to preserve them instead of cutting them down.
- Conservation X Labs
This nonprofit is developing technologies to help identify endangered and protected plants and wildlife and prevent their trade. It has developed facial recognition software that makes it easier to register, identify, and rescue trafficked chimpanzees. It’s also developing a handheld, battery-powered device that will let park rangers, customs officers, supply chain inspectors, and law enforcement officers quickly and cheaply identify the DNA in wood, seafood, and animal products to determine whether they’re contraband.
- Planetary Computer
Microsoft is working with Esri, a geographical information software company, to aggregate data from satellites, ground-based devices, and user-sourced data into an environmental database for artificial intelligence (AI)-powered analysis to answer questions about planetary health and sustainability. Some of the potential biodiversity applications include providing wildlife biologists with habitat information and accurate measurements of forest borders to support preservation efforts.
- Crowdsourced monitoring
Smartphone apps make it easy for farmers, hikers, landowners, and other nature lovers to monitor, manage, and report on biodiversity challenges, from detecting sick trees to tracking wildlife abundance and catches over time. Applying machine learning to their data will help us understand how pathogens spread, what areas might be at risk of a crop die-off, where streams are being overfished, and other key issues. Incorporating thermal and digital images from aerial photography will further refine the models, improving environmental monitoring and mapping and clarifying what actions to take.
Sensors to detect and protect species at risk
Biodiversity is both a global issue and a hyper-local one. New technologies, from robots and drones to sensors that can be attached to an insect, are evolving to focus on a particular animal or habitat, with the potential of moving from detecting species at risk to defending their homes.
A solar-powered, energy-efficient “conservation robot” travels along a cable strung between trees in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, monitoring temperature, weather, carbon dioxide levels, and other environmental data. SlothBot is programmed to move toward sunlight when its batteries need recharging, but, like its namesake, it otherwise moves slowly and only as necessary, which makes it well suited for observing an ecosystem over months or even years without the disruptive presence of humans.
- Cyborg jellyfish
Researchers have built a microelectronic prosthesis that turns jellyfish into living sensors that swim almost three times faster than normal and can be steered to wherever they’re needed. This will let scientists gather real-time data on the health of the ocean, which can be used to monitor climate change and direct marine activities, such as identifying schools of endangered fish so fishing boats can be redirected.
- Invasive species trackers
Miniaturization has made it possible to shrink radio transmitters to just 200 milligrams – so small and light that they can be attached to a captured invasive insect, like an Asian long-horned beetle or a “murder hornet,” and track them to their nests to destroy the colony before they can further damage the local ecosystem. For insects too small for even that, such as the brown marmorated stink bug, there are harmonic radar tags, which are battery-less tags that weigh as little as 3 milligrams and can bounce a radar signal back to a handheld device.
- The Internet of wild things
Working alone or in combination, drones, sensors, cameras, low-power radio networks, and satellite technology can remotely monitor wildlife behavior and habitat changes in real time, tracking and monitoring the environment down to the level of individual animals to stop illegal poaching and habitat destruction. Drones might also map an area to determine where to plant trees or other native vegetation, then drop seeds in biodegradable pods throughout that area. Or a 3D-printed, fake sea turtle egg might be used to fool poachers into stealing them – and lead authorities to the poachers with the help of the GPS tracker concealed inside.
Remediation and restoration
Once we halt biodiversity loss, we have to reverse the trend with bioremediation technology that helps us restore what we’ve damaged. These are a few emerging possibilities:
Researchers have discovered that willows and other fast-growing trees are able to remove high levels of metals like cadmium, nickel, and zinc from contaminated sewage. While turning toxic sludge into organic matter that can be used to enrich nutrient-poor soil elsewhere, the trees transform damaged habitats into healthy forest – and can be cut down or trimmed later to harvest the metals they’ve absorbed.
- Sensing the repopulation of abandoned areas
In the nearly 35 years since the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, 2,800 square kilometers of Ukraine and Belarus have been off limits to all but a handful of humans. Native plants, including more than 60 rare species, have made a vigorous comeback in the exclusion zone, as have animals, including bears, bison, and the nearly extinct Przewalski’s horse. Researchers told Wired magazine that they’re capturing data about the rewilding process with technology like drones that record and map radiation levels, GPS collars with dosimeters to measure the actual amount of radiation a specific animal is absorbing over time, and scent-baited cameras that record evidence of any animal that sniffs them. Given enough time and protection from further damage, it seems that even badly harmed ecosystems can begin to recover.
- Early warning networks
Keeping humans out of areas so that animals can return to the wild undisturbed will also require early warning systems that alert authorities to critical events in real time. This could be done by repurposing smartphones with solar batteries and simple analytics to identify signs of unwanted human incursions (chainsaws, engines, voices) – or the sounds of returning wildlife.
The ways we break things are the ways we can fix them
The human driver behind the loss of biodiversity is simple: there are more people in the world than ever, and all of our activities in pursuit of a higher standard of living are straining the ecosystems on which we all depend – to the point that we risk irreparable damage.
But if we now choose to apply technological innovation to the challenge of conserving and restoring biodiversity, we can start repairing the planet and the well-being of every species on it – and create a future that’s more environmentally and economically stable and resilient.