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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EcoSpy (Leveraging the potential of historical spy satellite photography for ecology and conservation)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-11-30

Conservation planning and action critically relies on information about the dynamics in ecosystems, habitats, and species’ populations in order to define baselines, set conservation targets, and to identify areas for protection and restoration activities. Following the opening of the Landsat archives, remote sensing became a key technology for providing information to conservation, but many world regions experienced widespread changes in habitats and species populations prior to the Landsat history (1980s). In EcoSpy we pioneered the broad-scale use of recently declassified historical, global, high-resolution spy satellite photographs from the Cold War era (Corona) to extend the temporal scale of ecological and conservation remote sensing studies as far back as the 1960s. We integrated Corona with Landsat and Google Earth Images in three proof-of-concept studies to test the usability of Corona data for conservation research and applications. We assessed the changes in ecosystems of conservation concern, by identifying long-undisturbed forests in Romania, changes in human pressure on steppe ecosystems in Kazakhstan and changes in a keystone species’ population in the Kazakhs steppe. We also carried out a synthesis study on uses and benefits of Corona imagery for ecology and conservation worldwide. EcoSpy was a deeply interdisciplinary project, located at the intersection of ecology, conservation science and remote sensing. Scientifically, EcoSpy enhanced the long-term understanding of ecological processes such as land use legacies and time delayed effects and extended the use of high resolution remotely sensed data by two decades prior to Landsat. The main conclusion of the EcoSpy project is that historical remote sesing data can be a valualbe source of information on historical ecosystem states and for informing conservation practice in the pilot areas of Romania and Kazakhstan such as design of protected areas and promotion of sustainable land management practices.
EcoSpy relied on three pilot studies to test the applicability of historical remote sensing data for ecological and conservation questions and also provided a broad overview on data availability, the potential uses and benefits of for ecological research in form of a collaborative review. To achieve these objectives we integrated over 450 historical spy satellite images from Romania and Kazakhstan with modern remote sensing data at medium and high resolution and used statistical modelling and species distribution modelling to address questions on the extent of high conservation value forests, ecosystem pressures through grazing and for understanding keystone species dynamics.
For our subproject EcoSpy 1, we identified some 800.000 hectares of high conservation value forests in Romania but showed that about half of these areas are highly susceptible to human disturbance. For our subproject EcoSpy 2 we showed that grazing pressure on the the steppe ecosystem in Kazakhstan declined since 1960s which may be beneficial for the conservation of endangered species such as the saiga antelope. In the subproject EcoSpy 3 we estimated historic and contemporary population densities of steppe marmots, an ecosystem engineer and keystone species, and showed that the species responds with a time-delay to historical land conversions. In the subproject EcoSpy 4 we synthesized possible uses of the spy satellite data for ecology and conservation applications.
Project results have been disseminated to the academic community via scientic publications, conference presentations and workshop contributions. The results are also available to local conservation organizations such as the Association for the Conservation Biodiversity of Kazakhstan. Last but not least, dissemination to the general public included outreach talks, podcast contributions and extensive media coverage via international outlets such as The New York Times or BBC.
EcoSpy is deeply interdisciplinary, located at the intersection of ecology, conservation science and remote sensing. Recent integration of biodiversity and remote sensing data has proven beneficial for understanding ecosystem processes, and changes in the distribution and abundance of species. But most applications require fine-scale imagery, which are scarce from the pre-Landsat era. The EcoSpy strength lies in the integration of historical spy satellite photographs with modern remote sensing data and ecological data to derive conservation-relevant information. Our results include a spatially explicit map of high conservation value forests in Romania, which may be used for protected area design as well as for planning sustainable forestry in the area. In Kazakhstan, we show where grazing pressure is decreasing, and thus where conservation for endangered species may have least economic cost. We also highlight the importance of using long term data for monitoring environmental change because by ignoring past environmental changes we may oversee species declines. The EcoSpy project has had a great public impact, as highlighted by the international media coverage including the The New York Times or BBC. The project also produced a children's' book on steppe marmot ecology.
Agricutural fields from the 1960s in Kazakhstan, captured by historical spy satellite photography.