Achieving conservation goals with the power of geography

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By Stuart Bonthrone, Managing Director at Esri UK

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Author: Stuart Bonthrone, Managing Director at Esri UK (Esri UK)

For over 50 years, Esri has been committed to the conservation of the planet, developing geospatial solutions that help to protect it. Stuart Bonthrone, Managing Director at Esri UK, outlines how GIS (Geographic Information System) software is helping make a difference in countryside and wildlife conservation.

From tackling habitat loss and climate change to saving historic buildings and helping wildlife thrive, GIS software is helping conservation experts understand complex challenges and make decisions to better protect the world around us. The National Trust, RSPB, and Natural Resources Wales are just some of the hundreds of organisations Esri UK works hard with to help safeguard our environment for years to come.

What is GIS?

Providing powerful maps, apps and numerous tools to analyse spatial data, GIS plays a critical role in many countryside and wildlife conservation activities. Mobile apps are being used to carry out field observations, 3D analytical tools are modelling the natural world and new software is helping organisations engage more effectively with volunteers and the public.

Widely used in ecology and biodiversity conservation, one of the most common GIS applications is the creation of maps to help conservationists understand the state of biodiversity in a particular area and reveal insights into complex environmental challenges. While in wildlife management, GIS solutions include maps, apps and dashboards used by protected area staff to capture wildlife observations and monitor the status of flora and fauna populations in real-time.

Demand for talent

Organisations across the globe are increasingly relying on maps and location intelligence to make better decisions. As a result, careers which make use of GIS are in demand more than ever. Equipped with data visualisation and spatial analysis skills, GIS professionals qualify for occupations in countless fields, including conservation and the environment. But the pipeline of talent coming through from schools and universities needs to keep pace.

Image rendered with GIS software and drones in Wales
Natural Resources Wales: GIS and drones makes surveying environmental changes in remote areas easier (Esri UK)

With this in mind, Esri UK recently launched a new website, Careers with GIS, designed to inspire more students to study geography and GIS by highlighting the rewarding and exciting careers that these subjects unlock – many in conservation. Containing stories from real professionals working with GIS, including The Rivers Trust, Plantlife International and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the site dispels the often outdated stereotypes about which careers are open to those with geography qualifications.

Content on the site includes videos and interactive story maps to be used by teachers, parents/carers, careers advisors and students, to give inspiration when choosing subjects. This helps people realise that studying geography and GIS is the first step towards a fulfilling career. Ultimately, the resources are designed to boost the number of people entering the GIS profession.

Easy access to the latest technology

Access to modern technology can often be a challenge for many organisations, particularly for non-profit or charitable ones. At Esri UK, we share a deep commitment to the missions of many non-profit organisations across the UK, appreciating the work they do and see it as vital to the future of our communities and the planet. This is why we welcome eligible non-profit organisations and charities to apply to the Esri UK Non-profit Organisation Programme, which provides very low-cost access to GIS tools, data and training. In the UK there are over 400 non-profit organisations making use of the programme, while worldwide the number now stands at over 10,000.

GIS in action

The expanding human footprint and growing threat of climate change are placing immense pressure on all types of conservation but GIS is helping organisations create conservation strategies using the power of geography. From artificial intelligence, digital twins, drones and mobile apps, the technology and skills of GIS are increasingly critical to ensuring that people and nature thrive and make the world a better place.

Examples of how GIS is helping drive conservation efforts today:

GIS drone in flight for surveys in Wales
Natural Resources Wales uses GIS and drones to gather and share evidence about the environment (Esri UK)

Natural Resources Wales
Surveying environmental changes in remote areas

Natural Resources Wales uses GIS and drones to gather and share evidence about the environment, which can then be used to inform key decisions about conservation projects, land management and government policy. Capturing this evidence is, however, not always easy. Some mountainous and coastal areas of Wales are difficult to reach, while others are so vast that they are too big to survey on the ground using traditional methods.

GIS and drones are playing a key role in the country’s first national peatland action programme, gathering data about upland peat bogs that are hard to reach on foot. New evidence about erosion and drainage is being amassed that will help to inform sustainable management and restoration plans for blanket and lowland peats. Capturing footage of the same site at regular intervals provides a better understanding of changes in the environment over time.

Near Swansea, the organisation has applied a similar approach to help it monitor the installation of new habitats, including a wetlands area and over 3,000 trees and shrubs.

The organisation is using the technology to survey the development of the new natural environment and measure the success of the scheme in improving biodiversity.

National Trust
Protecting our heritage from climate change

One of the recent projects the National Trust has used GIS for is to produce an interactive, climate hazards map that gives its staff, volunteers and partners the foresight they need to help protect historic buildings, coastline and countryside. By plotting its places alongside existing data on climate change related events, the charity is able to understand how potential risk factors, including extreme heat and humidity, flooding, landslides, coastal erosion, soil heave and high winds, could change by 2060.

Created using a ‘worst case scenario’ in which greenhouse gas emissions continue their current trajectory unchecked, the map plots threat levels from one to five. It highlights in particular, the dramatic increases in heat and humidity that are likely in the southeast of England over the next 40 years.

Property management teams can now zoom into the map and see climate-related hazards at specific locations. Plans to mitigate the potential impacts of climate change are then created, such as using heat-adaptive building materials, slowing the flow of water in flood prone river valleys and planting trees to create shading. The National Trust hopes the map will encourage other landowners, charities and developers to work collaboratively to help protect the nation’s green space, wildlife and heritage for decades to come.

National Trust staff using GIS software
National Trust uses GIS to help protect our heritage from climate change (Esri UK)

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)
Where can farmers have the most positive impact on the environment?

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland is proactively encouraging farmers to adopt more environmentally beneficial agricultural practices. GIS is being used to help select the most advantageous land management options on a field-by-field basis, as well as ensuring funding is directed to the locations where it can have the greatest positive impact on the environment.

DAERA analyses a large amount of spatial data using GIS to generate the evidence it needs to formulate the most appropriate management plans. Planners use interactive maps to explore data on everything from habitats and water courses to land use in neighbouring fields. Recommendations can then be made, such as creating buffers along riverbanks, known as riparian buffers, to keep livestock and nutrients out of rivers.

In one coastal region, DAERA was able to pinpoint 120 fields in a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) that had been designated as a priority for improved environmental management by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). DAERA then contacted the relevant farmers and now 118 of these fields are being managed more sustainably to support the recovery of this particularly important landscape. Over 500 hectares of agricultural land are now under favourable management as a direct result of using GIS.    

Other inspiring examples can be found here:

About Esri UK

Esri is the global market leader in Geographic Information System (GIS) software, location intelligence and mapping. Founded in 1969, today Esri has 4,000 staff in 73 countries and more than 350,000 customers worldwide. Esri UK’s customers include the Met Office, Environment Agency, Natural England and Defra. For more information, please visit the website.

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Posted On: 05/11/2022

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