There aren’t many fields that involve as much scale as environmental monitoring. From the tiniest bit of elemental evidence like radium isotopes that reveal the presence of deadly radon gas, to the massive storm systems that power hurricanes and typhoons, environmental monitoring generates more diverse sets of interrelated data than any other field.
Global warming has turned environmental monitoring into a hot topic in recent years. But the trend-line of environmental science has been ascendant since the 1970s when the damage done by decades of unchecked industrial output started to become obvious.
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Regulatory requirements and changing ethical concerns have carved out a prominent role for environmental monitoring today, and likely forever. You could say that environmental scientists serve as something of a safeguard against ourselves, ensuring that air, water, and soil remain compatible with human life and a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
And when you combine the importance of the task with the volume and diversity of the data the field produces, it becomes clear that only talented data scientists are in a position to process and interpret the growing mountain of environmental data.
Modeling the Future by Analyzing the Past
The data sets that environmental scientists work with include information torn from the very bones of the earth, fossilized and set down in the dark layers eons ago. The kind of information paleoclimatic reconstruction can pull from the stones includes:
- Ocean level at the time a rock layer was formed
- Relative humidity in the atmosphere
- Salt content of the seas
- Even actual atmospheric samples trapped in ice or magma bubbles
By combining the data from geological core samples and even archeological digs, global climate trends can be compared to both current observations and weather patterns that have not existed in the whole period of recorded history.
Interpreting Data Collected from Aerial Drones, Sailing Drones and Satellites
Ecosystems are pretty big– no matter where you stand, most of the ecosystem you are in right now is a long way away. To understand what is happening locally, it’s often necessary to first determine what is happening hundreds of miles away.
Remote sensing projects are vital for accurate environmental monitoring. The scope of the domain being assessed is simply too massive for in-person or traditional single-point sensor systems to cover. Moreover, the fluid boundaries of ecosystems means that there are almost always external inputs to account for. Closed systems – the systems data scientists are most accustomed to, like labs and other controlled settings – rarely exist in nature.
Technology continues to improve remote monitoring systems and capabilities, whether by allowing them to report back by satellite or cellular network, or by the use of aerial drones or even sailing drones like the ones developed by oceanic science research firm Saildrone.
Today, sensor suites have a nearly global reach. Where monitoring equipment is not physically present, heavily-instrumented satellites can still peek in from overhead.
Big Data? How About Biometrics From a Grizzly Bear?
Not all environmental monitoring is as sedate as watching trees grow or glaciers shrink.
Whether it is implanting trackers on bears to study territorial patterns or breeding habits, or setting up video monitoring to peek in on the lives of urban cougars, there are aspects of data collection in environmental monitoring that are decidedly hands-on.
The instrumentation required to gather in-depth information on individual animals from various species has shrunk to the point where it can be safely implanted or attached with minimal impact on the animal’s day-to-day activities. Better battery life and improved communications have helped to create a more complete picture of humanity’s impact on wildlife.
This has helped us to better understand how animals respond to the environmental pressures of climate change, a slow burn that continues to reveal itself through small clues in animal behavior, just as much as in the more obvious clues like weather and temperature changes.
The Story of A Species is Written Within It
The history of a given biome is also written in the genes of the species that populate it. Adaptation, as Darwin famously postulated, is almost exclusively about improving an organism’s ability, over generations, to suit its habitat. As the habitat changes, so too do the species within it– or otherwise die off in the process.
So environmental monitoring also reaches into the realm of genomics. The study of population genetics allows scientists to track the courses of adaptation taken by species in response to environmental pressures. By understanding the adaptation, predictions can be made about the environmental factors that contribute to such adaptations.
Analysis of the genome itself can reveal traces of adaptations long since incorporated or abandoned, providing information about the environment at that point in the species’ history.
Piecing Together the Puzzle
The problem with much of the data generated by environmental monitoring is that it is unstructured. Raw audio and video feeds, irregular historical observations taken down on paper, trends in social media posts- all this can impart valuable information about the environment. Still, without expert analysis and integration, the data is meaningless.
When master’s-educated data scientists get their hands on such information, though, amazing things can happen.
The World Resource Institute’s Aqueduct Project interleaves geological data, river flow levels, and population information to help predict river flooding impacts, pollution risks, and other water-related environmental issues.
IBM’s Deep Thunder project drills down to provide hyper-local weather forecasts, using high-performance computing power to crunch down through satellite and local data sources to arrive at forecast models with resolutions as focused as one meter. The forecasts can be used to determine the optimal time to plant and harvest crops, and predict storm-related electrical outages.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow system provides near real time air-quality information across the United States, making the information available to consumers, both public and private. Knowing when it’s safe to go out and when to stay in can save the lives of asthma sufferers, the elderly, and others with compromised respiratory systems.