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URPP Global Change and Biodiversity

Interdisciplinary cooperation to measure biodiversity from space

Zurich, July 22, 2015

Interdisciplinary cooperation to measure biodiversity from space

Conservation scientists should collaborate more with space agencies, such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), on identifying measures to help track biodiversity declines around the world. That call is made by Prof. Dr. Andrew K. Skidmore of the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente and colleagues around the world, including scientists from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, according to a comment published today (22 July 2015) in Nature.

Track biodiversity

In a move that previously proved successful in helping to monitor climate change on a global scale, scientists believe that space technology could help track biodiversity across the planet. Satellite images can quickly reveal where to reverse the loss of biological diversity. Vegetation productivity or leaf cover can, for example, be measured across continents from space while providing information about biodiversity level on the ground. Publicly-funded space agencies, including ESA and NASA, already collect and regularly provide open-access to satellite data. However, a lack of agreement between conservation biologists and space agencies on a definitive set of variables to track, as well as how to translate such information into useful data for conservation, has meant that so far this game-changing resource has remained untapped. “Satellite imagery from major space agencies is becoming more freely available, and images are of much higher resolution than 10 years ago”, says Dr. Andrew Skidmore, lead author of the study. “Our ambition to monitor biodiversity from space is now being matched by actual technical capacity. As conservation and remote sensing communities join forces, biodiversity can be monitored on a global scale. High tech satellites can assist in conserving biological diversity by tracking the impact of environmental policies worldwide.”


Prof. Dr. Michael Schaepman, co-author of the comment and researcher at the University of Zurich said: “Measuring biodiversity from space is becoming reality with new generations of Earth observing satellites and programs. However, there is an urgent need that conservation and Earth observing scientists collaborate on this endeavor more closely. In particular, an agreement is needed which diversity variables are to be measured on the long term. Organizations like the Group on Earth Observations through its Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO-BON) are perfectly positioned to make a substantial contribution towards global biodiversity monitoring from space.” “Systematic diversity observations from space in combination with in situ measuring networks will allow global assessment of changes in functional diversity. Our University Research Priority Program on ‘Global Change and Biodiversity’ (URPP GCB, substantially contributes towards this goal, by providing a global network of sites, monitoring biodiversity change not only under the influence of climatic change, but also including drivers of pollution, invasions, over-utilization, and land use changes. Finally, we strongly foster a scientific and policy dialogue between stakeholders to ensure future essential biodiversity variables are able to monitor progress towards meeting the Aichi biodiversity targets.”

About the authors

Prof. Dr. Andrew K. Skidmore is Professor in Spatial Environmental Resource Dynamics at the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente. His research focuses mainly on vegetation mapping and monitoring. Co-authors of the article include Prof. Dr. Michael E. Schaepman, Professor of Remote Sensing and director of the University Research Priority Program on ‘Global Change and Biodiversity’ at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on developing advanced methods to measure the interaction of light with vegetation, finally allowing quantifying biodiversity change at large scale.


Michael E. Schaepman (University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland),E-mail:

Article Notes

The full article can be read on Full details on the publication: Skidmore AK, Pettorelli N, Coops NC, Geller GN, Hansen M, Lucas R, Mücher CA, O’Connor B, Paganini M, Pereira HM, Schaepman ME, Turner W, Wang T, Wegmann M (2015). Environmental science: Agree on biodiversity metrics to track from space, Nature, 234, 403-405. (here)