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Leveraging the potential of historical spy satellite photography for ecology and conservation

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Tracking environmental change with the help of Cold War spy imagery

Photographs captured by American spy satellites over half a century ago reveal the long-term impact of human activity on the environment – and could help steer future conservation efforts.

Climate Change and Environment

Conservationists are receiving a helping hand from an unexpected source: Cold War spy photography. The EcoSpy project pioneered the use of satellite photography from the Cold War era to trace long-term changes in ecosystems and species’ populations. The research, undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, used photographs captured by American CORONA spy satellites between 1960 and 1972 and combined these with modern-day data.

Intelligence for the planet

Initially focusing on Soviet nuclear missiles, the CORONA satellites mapped virtually the entire globe, capturing more than 800 000 images in high resolution. “They would parachute the photo capsule into the atmosphere, where a plane would catch it in mid-flight before it could be intercepted by Soviet intelligence,” says Catalina Munteanu, Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow from Humboldt University of Berlin and EcoSpy’s lead researcher. Declassified in 1995, these historic images could now fill an important gap. While modern satellite images play a key role for ecology and conservation, they cover a limited timeframe: “The earliest high-resolution data is from the 2000s, but a lot of processes that lead to changes in ecosystems have much deeper roots.” Using software initially developed for processing drone photography, Munteanu and her colleagues were able to align the Cold War era images with more recent imagery, turning them into a powerful data source.

Long-term impact

“We found evidence that human activities, such as agriculture and forestry, in the 1950s and 1960s are still very much affecting our environment. Moreover, we noticed that species responded to changes in ways we had previously overlooked,” Munteanu observes. Her team’s conclusions are underpinned by pilot studies which highlight the long-term environmental impact of human activities. Their study of steppe marmots in Kazakhstan for instance enabled a new understanding of how farming is affecting this species. “Steppe marmots are ecosystem engineers: they play a vital role for the functioning of the ecosystem and the habitat of other species,” Munteanu notes. “Digging complex systems of burrows in the ground, they create small mounds of soil that can be seen from space.” Prior research found that the marmots were more abundant in agricultural fields than in the steppe, their natural habitat. Using the CORONA images to compare historic with recent data, EcoSpy’s team however detected an overall drop in the marmot population since the 1960s, when Kazakhstan was converting large steppe areas into fields. “Marmots tend to stay in the same place. The fact that agriculture was persistently disturbing their burrows might have affected their populations,” adds Munteanu. Another pilot study identified forests of high conservation value in Romania which had remained undisturbed for a long period of time while also highlighting vulnerability to human pressure. EcoSpy’s data now enables decision makers to focus conservation efforts on those areas where they could make the biggest difference. EcoSpy’s team has been cooperating with fellow researchers at the international level to identify areas in which the imagery from earlier decades could deliver new insights. Current collaborations include a study on the effects of the Vietnam War on the landscape and an assessment of grazing pressure from livestock and its interaction with wild ungulate in Kazakhstan.

Keywords

EcoSpy, biodiversity, spy satellite, CORONA, conservation, photography, steppe marmot, environmental change, Cold War

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