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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

NASA Helps Conservation Biologists Get the Big Picture

July 29, 2008

NASA’s views of Earth — from satellite images to photographs taken by astronauts — can give conservation biologists the big picture of how our planet and the life on it are changing, from forest fragmentation to the possible link between UV-B radiation and amphibian declines.

To explore NASA’s role in conservation, the August issue of Conservation Biology includes a 12-paper special section entitled “NASA and the Conservation of Biodiversity,” which was co-edited by Woody Turner of NASA’s Office of Earth Science in Washington, DC, and Eleanor Sterling of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Many of these projects stem from the 1997 NASA-Smithsonian workshop “Applications of NASA Technology for Biodiversity Conservation.”


The projects include:

  1. Using radar images to distinguish patches of natural forest from areas of cocoa planted under remnant canopy trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coast rainforest. Compared to optical technology, radar has the advantage of penetrating both cloud cover and tree canopy. Such work could help identify high-biodiversity areas for reserves and corridors. This work is by Saasan Saatchi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and colleagues.
  2. Using astronauts’ low-Earth-orbit photographs to identify woodlands damaged by the growing elephant population in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Nearly 400,000 photographs taken by astronauts since the late 1960s are available in a searchable database at This work is by Julie Robinson of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and her colleagues.
  3. Using satellite images to determine if surface currents could have spread the pathogen that caused the mass sea urchin deaths in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in 1993-1994. This work is by Jonathan Phinney of the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, DC, and his colleagues.
  4. Using satellite-derived UV-B radiation data to show that UV-B has increased significantly at 11 Central American sites where amphibians have declined. This work is by Elizabeth Middleton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and her colleagues.

—Robin Meadows

Further Information:

Turner, W., E.J. Sterling, and A.C. Janetos (eds.). 2001. Special section on contributions of remote sensing to biodiversity conservation: A NASA approach. Conservation Biology 15(4):832-953.

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