Sunday, 30 November 2014

Environmental Monitoring: Alberta

At the just-concluded G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, the leaders of the 20 major economies in the world agreed to “take strong and effective action” on climate change. Still, at this critical juncture in the history of our planet, it is essential that the scientific world continue to document the dramatic climate changes occurring all across the globe.

One technological area gaining wider use is remote sensing. Today sensors are powerful and inexpensive, network access to remote data is increasing, scientific models are improving, and “big data” algorithms for crunching the numbers are more accessible. In fact, we are now able to “watch the forests breathing” in real-time from our Edmonton campus, thanks to advanced streaming analytics software we’ve incorporated into one of our research initiatives. In real time, it is possible to take the pulse of an area, whether it is the environment (land, water, air) or the inhabitants (animal, fish, insect, plant). The data can be used to assess the health of a region, understand the short- and long-term trends, anticipate problems, and devise remediation schemes. Widespread remote sensing is essential to documenting what we are doing to Mother Earth.

Nowhere is this truer than in the province of Alberta, Canada, home of the oil sands. The extraction of oil from bitumen (often called “tar” because of the similarity in appearance) has ignited a global discussion about the need for energy and the cost of obtaining that energy, both economically and environmentally. Remote sensing can be used as crucial input to the many claims that are being made by environmentalists and the media – those with and especially those without the appropriate expertise – about the real impact of this increasingly global flashpoint for the energy versus the environment debate.

As an important step forward, the Alberta government has created the arms-length Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA). Its mission is to “monitor, evaluate and report on key air, water, land and biodiversity indicators to better inform decision-making by policy makers, regulators, planners, researchers, communities, industries and the public.” This body has the mandate, senior leadership, and financial resources to make a difference. In particular, by moving the environmental monitoring responsibility from the government to an independent, scientifically based organization, we expect to see the gathering and analysis of data that will lead to impartial conclusions. Perhaps then we can move the climate change discussion above the “is it real?” debate and on to the crucial “how do we remediate it” dialogue.

In a smarter planet, the entire world would be instrumented, from the macro level down to the micro. From the rain forests of the Amazon to the ice caps on Greenland to the depths of the oceans, remote sensors could supply a steady stream of real-time data. How do we fund the placement of literally billions (more?) of sensors around the world? Simple. Remote sensing has the potential to save billions of dollars per year by identifying problems in advance and preventing them from happening.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, the stakes are much higher.

[This blog posting also appears here.]

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