Ecological assessment tool launched
A new web-based tool has been developed to help planners determine ecologically-valuable locations outside of protected areas. The tool can be used remotely, ahead of undertaking more costly field-based environmental impact assessment.
Whilst there are a number of mapping methods available for determining important areas for conservation within protected areas, there are few tools available for assessing the ecological value of landscapes that are ‘beyond the reserves’. A systematic tool for determining the ecological value of landscapes outside of protected areas could be relevant to any development that results in a parcel of land being transformed from its ‘natural’ state to an alternative state (eg industrial, agricultural, urban).
Specifically what is needed is a method to quickly and remotely demonstrate which landscapes beyond protected areas are important for the ecological processes that they support and the threatened and vulnerable species that they contain.
Researchers in the Biodiversity Institute, University of Oxford, have recently devised such a tool: a Local Ecological Footprinting Tool (LEFT). This automated web-based tool uses existing globally available databases and models to provide an ecological score based on five key ecological features (biodiversity, vulnerability, fragmentation, connectivity and resilience) for every 300m parcel within a given region. The end product is a map indicating ecological value across the landscape. The tool works anywhere in the world.
It quickly and remotely highlights areas of high ecological value to avoid in the location of facilities
The primary audience of this tool are those practitioners involved in planning the location of any landscape scale industrial/ business or urban (eg new town) facility outside of protected areas. It provides a pre-planning tool, for use before undertaking a more costly field-based environmental impact assessment, and quickly and remotely highlights areas of high ecological value to avoid in the location of facilities.
Designing the tool
Discussions with stakeholders were central to the design of LEFT. From the outset it was clear that the tool needed to i) be based on multiple valuation factors, (ii) use freely spatial data available for almost any location worldwide, (iii) work at a scale relevant to most development concessions, ideally <0.5km and (iv) require minimum input by the user.
Five criteria were determined as being of primary importance to the ecological valuation of a landscape, namely: biodiversity, vulnerability, fragmentation, connectivity and resilience. Data that are available to assess these features (in conjunction with modelling and various algorithms) include the ESA Globcover 2009 land cover map, the IUCN red list, the Global Register of Migratory Species (GROMS), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Worldclim gridded climatologies, the WWF ecoregion classification, and the Shuttle Radar Tomography Mission (SRTM) elevation model.
Once suitable global datasets were sourced and models devised, researchers in the Oxford e-research centre (OeRC) automated the system and created an automation server. Using a web-portal, a user can now specify a region of interest (either inputting latitude/longitude or via a shape file in GoogleEarth) and within a few minutes they receive into their email inbox a series of maps and a custom generated report. GIS files are also provided for use with any mapping software and kmz files in other packages.
Validating the model
But how realistic is this remotely obtained data to the real world and what is on the ground? In order to assess this question and validate global models, output from the tool has been compared against models built using high-resolution field data collected by Operation Wallacea volunteers taking part in long-term biodiversity monitoring research in Honduras, Madagascar, South Africa and Indonesia. Preliminary results are extremely encouraging and indicate broadly similar trends and patterns in both the biodiversity and vulnerability layers.
The next research challenge is to develop this tool to work at an even finer spatial resolution (30m) and to use this framework to also enable assessment of key ecosystem services including pollination services, soil protection and carbon stocks across global landscapes. Unpalatable though it may seem to many, the question of ‘where can we damage?’ posed by businesses on a daily basis, is a very good one; development of tools such as LEFT can start to help to address this question.