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Raw Data Podcast, Episode Seven: The Big Data of Nature

Will silicon help the salamander? Data are being used to visualize real-life clouds, swarms, and flocks, but seeing is different from saving. Raw Data explores the impact of data on nature this week, bringing together experts on litter, bird migration and habitat, climate change, species extinction, and, of course, data.

There’s a huge conservation problem, and the data can be deceiving

It turns out that data on our environment are plentiful: the World Bank tracks deforestation and biodiversity as part of its canon of world development indicators (less of the former and more of the latter indicating better development, one supposes). From these tables, we can see that marine and terrestrial protected areas are increasing, though the numbers of threatened plant species—540 in Madagascar, for example—are alarming, to me at least, though perhaps not to Peter Kareiva of UCLA, and formerly of the Nature Conservancy. Interviewed in the second half of the podcast, Peter notes that because indicators like plant diversity in California are increasing, and more species of birds are moving to LA—nonnative birds, but pretty parrots nonetheless—we shouldn’t see conservation data as painting a frightening picture. I disagree with Peter; nonnative species moving into new environments shouldn’t be a cause for celebration. Often these incursions are the result of climate change or human intervention: species move toward areas that better resemble their historical habitats, as climate shifts cause warmer waters farther north, or nonnative species are brought in by humans and find they have no natural predators and can find an easy living. Sure, it makes for a temporary increase in wildlife, all to the good, but look at Florida’s problem with boa constrictors: nonnative constrictor snakes in the Everglades are causing havoc, destroying native mammal populations. Populations of opossums and raccoons in the Everglades have decreased by 99% since 2000, bobcats have decreased by 87.5% (the snakes may not be eating the bobcats, but the animals the bobcats eat are being eaten by the snakes, thereby driving out the bobcats), and the study failed to find any rabbits at all—potentially a total elimination of this native mammal species from the Everglades. Nonnative incursions are nothing to cheer for.

Tracking environmental indicators is good, but we need to take action on results

The fact that we can now track species at all is a victory for data; in the 1960s, for example, we had no idea how many polar bears there were in the wild. Might as well burn as much oil as we can get our hands on. Now, we know there are approximately 26,000. But what we do about this number is more important than the number itself; efforts to add more species to the IUCN red list and to increase the threat level for many more are often countered by claims that we don’t know enough about how many there are, or how are efforts are likely to help. (If, like me, your image of a polar bear is of a skinny bear trapped on a melting ice floe, you’ll be disturbed to note they aren’t even listed as endangered—they’re just “vulnerable.”) Movebank, an online database of animal tracking data hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (but tracking more than just birds) helps researchers view tagged and collared animals across the world, which can provide information about biodiversity loss, the spread of disease, and how our interventions really are helping. Cecil, the lion murdered in 2015 by a poacher, had a radio collar, which helped raise awareness to his case and drive donations for wildlife conservation. Tagging more animals non-invasively will help bolster the case for animal advocacy, and tracking technologies like RFID dust could make it easier to track animals that come into close contact with human structures (the range of a battery-powered RFID chip like the one in your car’s toll tag is approximately 300 feet; RFID dust’s range is currently only about a foot, but that could improve, and would still be useable in areas where birds roost at known locations.)

Is the environment at risk from cyber threats?

Cyber threats to “critical infrastructure” are top priorities for the government, and include the electrical grid and transportation networks. They also include water and sewage treatment plants, and satellites—many of which are used to monitor climate data—meaning that yes, the environment, what techies may think of as “the outdoors”, is vulnerable to cyber attack. We also have to consider the effects of climate change on the prevalence of cyber attacks; global warming is related to increased violence, and we have to assume that includes violence perpetrated over the internet. The insecurity of the internet of things caught many by surprise, because technology was outpacing security best practices, but the increased attention to the problem is helping close security loopholes. The internet of animals is equally insecure, but it's their survival, not the release of personal data, that's in question. Hopefully drawing attention to the problem will lead to better protections.

 

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