Spaceship Earth: The Science of Biogeography

April 13, 2022

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Long before computers, or even electricity, GIS was born. One of my geo-heroes has always been Alexander Von Humboldt, a German scientist who explored the world in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Prior to that, in the post-renaissance era of the 1600s, Galileo discovered modern astronomy, and a few decades later, Isaac Newton invented calculus. These were amazing steps forward in modern science but largely isolated from one another, although calculus proved to be useful in astronomy. But what about our home planet?

Humboldt was revolutionary in that he realized that the world is an interconnected system. Many of his expeditions were in South America, and his treks brought him from the Amazon jungle to the peaks of the Andes. He took meticulous measurements and notes about everything he observed, and in the process, noticed certain patterns: plant communities changed with altitude, as did other systems, including hydrology and human physiology. Thus began the wide world (literally) of the study of biogeography; Humbolt was a biologist, geologist, and anthropologist.

Since then, the science of biogeography has expanded exponentially. Geospatial technology, both analog and digital, has revealed patterns of interaction between flora, fauna, geology, topography, geology, weather and, of course, human behavior and our influence on all of these elements.

Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport — The Wallace and Weber Lines

“Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” is the title of a very catchy song that seems like appropriate background music for a discussion of the Wallace And Weber lines. In 1876, Alfred Russel Wallace made a map of the zoogeographic regions of the world, one of the seminal works in the study of global biodiversity for over a century. Although overshadowed by Charles Darwin, who was also exploring the world and taking meticulous notes, Wallace made some ground-breaking discoveries, one of them being the Wallace Line and the associated Weber Line. While the exact boundaries are amorphous and still under discussion, these lines represent a boundary between the biogeographical regions of Asia and Australia. North of this line, species are related to the larger ecosystem of Southeast Asia. South of this line, flora and fauna are largely endemic to the Australian continent and outlying areas, including the enormous island of Papua New Guinea.

National Geographic has developed a fascinating and informative infographic on this topic along with a lesson plan. Designed for grades five through eight, it can be used in all other levels, including secondary and post-secondary, and can be included in both physical geography and human geography courses.

For those seeking to delve deeper into the topic, there are several resources that offer data and maps. The University of Copenhagen’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate has downloadable maps and data, as well as a short and very engaging video that describes their methodology for mapping global biodiversity. (I watched it twice!)

A more obscure site discusses the nuances of using open source GIS, specifically QGIS, and how to download and use them. The site is called “The Wallace Line,” and although I didn’t see anything actually related to that topic — maybe Wallace is the author’s name — it is a good resource on open source GIS and an interesting guide to data sources as well.

Biodiversity Without Humans

Researching the topic of biogeography and biodiversity, I made some interesting discoveries. (But aren’t all discoveries interesting?) National parks in the U.S. are some of the most protected areas in the world and have amazing biodiversity. However, they are also heavily impacted by human visitors, (with a few exceptions, like Aniakchak in Alaska). In some places, they are literally being “loved to death,” and the biodiversity shows this. For example, at one iconic park known for its pristine waters, an algae bloom has developed on the lakeshore. While the causes and effects are yet to be determined, it is possibly due to dramatically increased visitation from urban visitors. At the very least, there is little doubt that the surge in visitation has been a factor.

Military operations around the world consume tremendous amounts of fossil fuels, adding to our carbon footprint, and the noises and other anthropogenic impacts can have negative effects on species floral and faunal, and terrestrial and aquatic. Surprisingly though, many military areas in the U.S. and across the world have amazing biodiversity due to the absence of human activity. A striking example of this is the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula. Stretching 160 miles from east to west, and a mere two miles north to south, it is completely uninhabited. CBS Mornings reported on this, following a biologist who studies endangered cranes, which are thriving in this this area.

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 was the worst industrial disaster in modern history, killing, injuring and displacing thousands of people. Following the disaster, an exclusion area was created, forbidding human habitation. In a study that includes a map of radiation levels, it was discovered that in high radiation zones, wildlife population decreased, while in low radiation zones, wildlife was actually thriving due to the absence of human activity.

Who Gives A Hoot? Integrating Technology

At Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, we were monitoring northern spotted owls, an endangered native species, as well as barred owls, an invasive species that compete with northern spotted owls. Traditionally, monitoring meant sending field crews out at night to “hoot,” meaning they would play recorded calls of northern spotted owls and document the response. This was obviously time-intensive, and since the crews needed to hike miles in the dark, there were also safety issues. This method also covered a very small spatial area.

Our wildlife biologist asked: how can we make owl surveys more efficient and safer for our crews, while covering more area? The solution was acoustic monitoring. I was running a natural sounds monitoring project, and our biologist realized this technology was an opportunity for his program. He used the same technology and deployed dozens of sound-recording stations throughout the park.

Instead of sending crews out in the dark to hoot for hours, they went out during the day, set up the acoustic monitoring stations, and took GPS coordinates, then retrieved them later. We used an open source GIS program called SPreAD-GIS, using freely available GIS data of topography, land cover and other factors to locate the best sites for placing the stations.

Then, also during daylight, the crews would retrieve the stations and download the recordings, which would contain many hours of continuously recorded data. Obviously, listening to this in real-time would be futile, so they used NPS software to visually detect owl calls with visual spectrograms.

It initially required a long period of training for the biologists, but once they learned the spectrogram patterns, they were (and are) able to process and analyze much more data and cover many more acres than using the traditional field methods. Some weren’t happy about having to spend more time in the office instead of the field, but they understood the importance and efficiency of this new methodology.

The acoustic data was spatially referenced, and the various sounds were incorporated into a GIS database. Along with owl calls, they also discovered other sounds, such as elk bugles, gunshots, lots of air traffic and a snuffling porcupine. Without GIS and GPS, they could have still deployed the recorders, but spatial technology made the deployment process more efficient and the subsequent analysis more accurate.

The Eyes In The Sky: Remote Sensing For Monitoring Biodiversity

Global deforestation is rampant, especially in the tropics from Brazil to Borneo. Some of it is legal, sanctioned by governments, while much of it is illegal, but laws are not enforced due to weak oversight and corruption. The non-profit Global Forest Watch “offers the latest data, technology and tools that empower people everywhere to better protect forests.” Their site offers links to data as well as an interactive (and slightly addictive) web map.

 Island biogeography is an important and challenging field. From the tropics to the poles, islands are some of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet due to their geographic isolation and their vulnerability to sea-level rises. MDPI, an academic journal, published a special issue on this topic, with several articles by academic researchers that focus on the use of remote sensing for topics including coastline change, coral production and invasive species.

 What Is The Name of This Spaceship?

Ms. Austin, my seventh grade social studies teacher, gave us the classic “Spaceship Earth” exercise. The upshot is that our planet is ultimately a closed system, a spaceship hurtling around the sun. Our species has created what many call the Anthropocene epoch in the geologic time scale, of which humanity is only a blip — but a very significant one. Hopefully, with the use of geospatial technology, the Anthropocene will continue, sustainably, for many generations to come.


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