Finding the lost forests of the drylands

A new global analysis of the distribution of forests and woodlands across dryland ecosystems using TERN data has increased current estimates of global forest cover by nearly 10%. The work, just published in Science, is a direct result of TERN’s on-going collaborations with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization through their Global Forest Survey, which uses TERN data for crucial on-ground verification of satellite-based analyses.

Finding these lost dryland forests increases current estimates of global forest cover by almost 10%, and by approximately 45% for dryland forest types. An innovative new analysis of global drylands using high-resolution satellite imagery has ‘found’ 467 million hectares of previously unreported forest—an area equivalent to 60% of the size of Australia.

These results, just published in Science, are set to drastically improve the accuracy of global models of terrestrial carbon sinks and carbon inventories submitted under international climate conventions including the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

Moreover, by revealing that drylands—which make up about 40% of Earth’s land surface—have a greater capacity to support trees and forest than previously perceived and understood, a unique chance to mitigate climate change impacts through large-scale dryland conservation and afforestation actions is presented.

 

A Baobab forest in Senegal, a few kilometers away from Dakar (image courtesy of FAO/Faidutti)

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the University of Adelaide, TERN and a dozen other public and private institutions from all continents, stems from the FAO’s Global Drylands Assessment phase of the Global Forest Survey.

The team analysed very high spatial and temporal resolution satellite imagery of more than 210,000 dryland monitoring plots to calculate global forest cover and its change over time. TERN’s national network of over 500 ecosystem observation plots and the field data collected at them were used to complete the Oceania component of the study.

The resources provided by TERN are the only global plot-based data source readily available and accurate enough to validate satellite imagery, verify the observed density of trees, and assess observer accuracy. In fact, TERN ecosystem observation plots are so vital to the project that the FAO is working on permanently incorporating them into their global forest-monitoring network.

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Recent advances in satellite imagery, as well as new data collected and made available by TERN, have enabled researchers to greatly improve our mapping of drylands forest ecosystems, like the Coolabah forest (Eucalyptus victrix) in the Pilbara region of Western Australia shown above (image courtesy TERN)

Project member Danilo Mollicone of the FAO said the decision to use TERN infrastructure and expertise was made thanks to TERN’s proven expertise and research infrastructure in Australia’s arid ecosystems.

“TERN’s infrastructure and expertise is vital to the FAO and the successful completion of our Global Drylands Assessment,” says Danilo.

“The data we collect via TERN fills an important information gap that ensures the project has worldwide coverage.  With such global coverage we were able to accurately obtain estimates on tree cover, forest extension and land use in the drylands.”

“Over time, our ongoing partnership with TERN, will also help the project identify spatial and temporal changes and trends within ecosystems and between continents as biological and non-biological influences come into play.”

Associate Professor Ben Sparrow of the University of Adelaide and TERN AusPlots, led Australia’s involvement in the project and seconds Danillo’s call for ongoing monitoring.

“Dryland forests play an increasingly important role in preventing desertification, maintaining livelihoods and mitigating the impacts of climate change at regional and global scales, so it’s vital that we continue to monitor the long-term trends in dryland forest cover and quality,” says Ben.

TERN looks forward to further strengthening our relationship with the FAO and continuing to provide the infrastructure, data and expertise required to complete this ongoing study that has already delivered such positive and timely global outcomes for our ecosystems.

This article has also been published in:

TERN newsletter May 2017

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And, used in this Conversation article:

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Conserving blink-and-you’ll-miss-it biodiversity

New research has revealed the conservation and management implications of rapid changes in species composition between Western Australia’s sandplain ecosystems.

Researchers from Western Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, the University of Western Australia and the CSIRO have found that the vegetation of southern WA’s sandplains is not only very diverse but also highly variable between locations.

In their paper just published in the journal PLOS One, the team report rapid and significant changes in botanical composition between locations—known as species turnover or beta diversity—resulting in remarkably diverse sandplain ecosystems.

Species composition between locations along the SWATT changes so quickly that sites with similar soils less than 10km apart have almost completely different plant communities.

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New research using TERN’s South West Australian Transitional Transect research infrastructure (right) has revealed the conservation and management implications of highly variable biodiversity across Western Australia’s sandplain ecosystems (left) 

Conservation of these diverse environments is challenging

Parks and Wildlife senior principal research scientist Neil Gibson said the findings were consistent with earlier work in sandplain and mallee vegetation in WA’s south-west and suggest that conservation strategies need to encompass this variability.

“When biodiversity changes significantly over short distances, as we found in WA’s sandplains, all areas make a significant contribution to regional diversity and it’s logistically difficult and expensive to capture this diversity in a reserve system,” says Neil.

“So biodiversity conservation approaches need to include off-reserve management through protecting remnant vegetation and minimising human disturbance, and this approach is already happening in areas under traditional land ownership or joint management agreements.”

Implications of climate driven species turnover

So what’s causing this high species turnover? Co-author Suzanne Prober of CSIRO Land and Water said at smaller scales, distance between locations and natural barriers that limit species distribution appear to be key factors.  At broader scales, climate and geography, or a combination of both, are the biggest drivers.

“Changes in soil along the 870 km transect partly explain the broader-scale turnover, but of particular interest is the role climate is playing,” says Suzanne. “We found that the most important climatic factor was the amount of rain during the driest time of the year, effectively an aridity gradient.”

“Whilst this is not unexpected, it’s very important because rainfall patterns are expected to dramatically change with climate change,” Suzanne explains.

“It’s hard to predict just how these projected climatic changes will impact sandplain biodiversity so ongoing monitoring and adaptive management is essential.”

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Reserves are conservation jewels but by themselves are unlikely to fully represent the diversity across such variable sandplain ecosystems

The extensive data on WA’s sandplain ecosystems, compiled with TERN support and now openly available via TERN data infrastructure, is already playing an integral role in monitoring and management.

Parks and Wildlife Assistant Director of Science Stephen van Leeuwen said that land managers and policy makers could now use the TERN-delivered SWATT data to make informed decisions on how to best manage these ecosystems for economic and environmental sustainability.

“Department vegetation and soil monitoring programs are specifically aligned with TERN’s surveying and monitoring protocols (TERN’s AusPlots protocol), which streamlines the use of TERN data in state management approaches” he said.

“For example, the data collected by our recent study indicates that the State’s sandplains are of similar biological significance as its woodlands,” reports Stephen. “The integration of this information on diversity with ongoing fire ecology research is expected to better inform the way we manage sandplain environments, especially with regards to fire management and prescribed burning programs.”

“TERN provides the research infrastructure and data at the scales we need to understand and manage these vast, but fragile and highly variable sandplain ecosystems.”

With pressures on these ecosystems increasing, the ongoing role of TERN in providing researchers, policy makers and environmental managers with a better footing on which to make informed decisions, including threat abatement and adaptation to climatic changes, is more important than ever.

  • The SWATT is part of TERN’s Australian Transect Network and is one of several major environmental monitoring transects within the Australian continent.  It extends about 1200 km, from Walpole on the southern coast, north-east into the Little Sandy Desert and traverse eight bioregions and various land uses from tall southern forests, through agricultural land with fragmented vegetation and across northern rangelands where pastoralism and mining are dominant land uses. It also takes in the Great Western Woodland, and Credo station—where TERN operates the Great Western Woodlands Supersite and OzFlux monitoring tower.
  • Data from SWATT are openly available via TERN’s AEKOS Data Portal.
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“TERN provides the research infrastructure and data at the scales we need to understand and manage these vast, but fragile and highly variable sandplain ecosystems.” – WA Parks and Wildlife Assistant Director of Science Stephen van Leeuwen (left)

 

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter March 2017

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Raincoat for a rainforest: Simulating drought in the Daintree

How might the world’s rainforests respond if droughts become more frequent in the future? This question is behind a unique experiment in the world-famous Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia.
Susan Laurance installing a dendrometer band on a Daintree rainforest tree (Photo courtesy of Dr Alex Cheesman)

A team of scientists led by Associate Professor Susan Laurance of James Cook University are studying how trees and other plant life-forms of a rainforest respond to a prolonged, experimentally induced drought at plots where tree growth, composition, soil water and atmospheric exchange have been monitored with TERN support since 1999.

“Major drought events are known to cause widespread tree and seedling death, reduced plant growth, and increased flammability, but just how quickly this happens is relatively unknown,” says Susan.

To investigate these mechanisms, the Daintree Drought Experiment is simulating drought conditions by excluding rainfall using clear-panel roofing structures, or raincoats, that capture rain and remove it from two sites of 50 x 40 m.

“We’ve successfully lowered soil water to at least 50 cm from the surface and reduced tree water use at the sites from 40-60%.”

The study is collecting data on tree demography, plant functional traits and water use, and overall tree health at both ‘drought’ and control plots to investigate changes in three main mechanisms that cause tree death during droughts: hydraulic failure, gradual carbon starvation, and insect and/or pathogen attack.

Data collected and made available by TERN’s plot network and flux monitoring tower at the site are providing the information necessary for comparison between control and drought plots.

“The data we are getting from TERN is really crucial comparative information on tree growth and survival; forest productivity with respect to coarse woody debris and leaf litter; and climate data from the TERN towers,” says Susan. “The data enables our experimental comparison to happen easily and efficiently.”

“So far, we have observed increased leaf fall and decreased growth rates of drought-affected trees at the site. We are also excited about the signs of elevated herbivory and disease on leaves and increased wood boring of drought-affected plant stems.”

Susan emphasises that these preliminary findings are a global first as most drought investigations have, until now, focussed on plant physiology and largely ignored factors such as herbivory and disease that are known to be pervasive and often powerful in tropical rainforests.

The Daintree Drought Experiment is an ambitious project that will address one of the most important potential threats to tropical forests. This is a vital undertaking, given that droughts could imperil the capacity of rainforests to store carbon and sustain biodiversity.

 

The construction (above and below) and design (map below) of the Daintree Drought Experiment includes 2 x 0.2 ha plots adjacent to a Control plot 1 (0.5 ha) under the canopy crane, and a nearby topographically matched Control plot 2 (1 ha) (photo courtesy of Mirko Karan and Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness.)

 

Control versus drought leaves illustrate signs of elevate herbivory and disease (centre) and recent wood boring signs in a drought-stressed sapling (right) (Photos courtesy of D. Tng and S. Laurance)

 

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter February 2017

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Global efforts to understand ecosystem drought sensitivity

A landmark global experiment that investigates the impact of drought on our ecosystems, and helps to predict and mitigate their continental and regional-scale impacts.

Climate change is predicted to increase both drought frequency and intensity and the latest science from the IPCC indicates that such an increase will cause abrupt and irreversible change in the composition, structure, and function of terrestrial ecosystems.  However, just how ecosystems will respond to increased drought isn’t clearly understood.  Nor are the factors that make some ecosystems more sensitive than others.

To address this knowledge gap an international group of scientists affiliated with the US National Science Foundation-funded Drought-Net Research Coordination Network (Drought-Net), is working at research sites all over the globe to understand terrestrial ecosystem sensitivity to drought and the mechanisms underlying response patterns.

Experimental plots with custom-built shelters designed to reduce rainfall and simulate predicted future drought conditions have been established at TERN sites as part of this landmark global experiment.

Shelters’ for the Drought-Net experiment have been established at a number of TERN’s environmental monitoring sites, including Great Western Woodlands in WA (above)
Associate Professor Sally Power of Western Sydney University is on the international steering group for Drought-Net and says: “access to TERN’s research infrastructure and the integrative, networked approach that it facilitates is enabling us to further our predictive understanding of Australian and global terrestrial ecosystem sensitivity to drought.”

‘Drought shelters’ for the Drought-Net experiment have been established by TERN’s partners at a number of TERN’s environmental monitoring sites, including Great Western Woodlands in WA, Cumberland Plain in NSW, and the Victorian Dry Eucalypt SuperSite at Wombat Forest.

Ecologists on opposite sides of the continent working at TERN’s Great Western Woodlands and Cumberland Plain sites are restricting up to 65% of rainfall at 18 Drought-Net plots and monitoring changes in soil moisture and biomass.

Drought-Net’s coordinated experimental network, with identical protocols and comparable measurements, facilitates comparative studies at such broad continental—and indeed global—scales.

In addition, the Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG) at The University of Sydney has also established drought shelters at the Desert Ecology Plot Network, which is one of TERN’s long-term research sites in Queensland’s Simpson Desert.

Researchers at these sites are imposing an 85% reduction in rainfall and have completed surveys of plant composition and productivity and collected soil samples in a bid to better understand the environmental drivers of change in arid landscapes.

This research could be used by rangeland and agriculture managers to develop management strategies that incorporate the impacts an increasingly warm climate with extreme rainfall patterns will have on arid landscapes.

While TERN has helped facilitate Australia’s participation in the global Drought-Net project possible, Sally notes that this is only the beginning.

“By maintaining and expanding TERN’s nation-wide research infrastructure, Australia’s capacity to collaborate on important projects like this will be significantly enhanced—as will our contribution to global climate science.”

  • Much of the data collected for the Drought-Net experiment—will become accessible to the global research community in coming years. So watch this space and we will keep you updated through the TERN Newsletters and most likely the TERN Data Discovery Portal.

‘Drought Shelters’ at TERN’s Great Western Woodlands site (above) and Cumberland Plain site (below) are restricting up to 65% of rainfall to simulate predicted future drought conditions so that researchers can better understand how ecosystems respond to a drier climate

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter January 2017

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And, by the Australian Energy and Water Exchange Initiative (OzEWEX)

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Angry summers and the ecosystem science of heat waves

As Australia swelters through another hot summer, a team of researchers is using TERN data to assess how heat waves affect the energy balance, carbon uptake, water use, and overall health of Australia’s ecosystems.

2017 has kicked off with severe heat waves throughout Australia’s southern and eastern states and it seems there’s more hot weather on its way. We know heat waves can pose risks to our power supply, public transport, and personal health, but how do our ecosystems respond?

Thanks to TERN’s flux monitoring infrastructure, data now exist to enable researchers to investigate the impact that heat waves have on Australian ecosystems. This work is especially important to help us plan for a future that is likely to include more frequent and extreme heat wave conditions.

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To see what happens to ecosystems during heat waves, researchers have used data from seven TERN OzFlux sites located in three distinct climate and ecosystem types: Mediterranean woodlands (red dots), temperate woodlands (light green dots), and a temperate forest (dark green dot). Data collected by the flux tower at TERN’s Great Western Woodlands SuperSite in WA (below) was one of the Mediterranean woodland sites (photo courtesy of Suzanne Long)

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The angry summer of ‘13

To see what happens to ecosystems during heat waves, researchers have used the data captured by several TERN flux towers during the ‘Angry Summer of 2012/2013’.

The study across southern Australia combined data on carbon and water exchange (or fluxes) between the land and atmosphere with results from CSIRO’s BIOS2 model to investigate the effect of the 2012/’13 heat wave on six woodlands and one forest known for their resilience toward hot and dry conditions.

Ecosystems can switch from carbon sink to source

Dr Eva van Gorsel of the Australian National University and Dr James Cleverly of the University of Technology Sydney are part of the investigative team, whose work has just been published in the journal Biogeosciences.

“The heat wave caused increased respiration in all ecosystems, and carbon uptake was reduced so much at woodland sites that they switched into carbon sources,” says Eva. “Unlike the woodland ecosystems that were severely impacted by the heat wave, the forest site kept sequestering carbon during this short-term heat extreme.”

“But, what we also found is that the heat wave depleted the available soil water at the forest site, leaving the ecosystem highly vulnerable to heat events of higher intensity or longer duration,” adds James.

Ecosystem resilience and recovery

The research team, made up of 20 Australian and international researchers, also investigated the impact intermittent rain has on the recovery of ecosystems following heat waves.

They found that the temperate woodlands recovered quickly following rain after the first, more intense part of the heat wave, whereas the Mediterranean woodlands remained carbon sources throughout the duration of the heat wave.

The team reported in their paper that “The response of the woodlands is the first direct evidence that the carbon sinks of large areas of Australia may not be sustainable in a future climate with an increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves.”

Australian heat waves unlike those overseas

Project researcher Dr. Sebastian Wolf of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) says that there is a fundamental difference in this Australian heat wave to what has previously been observed in Europe and US.

“Heat waves in Europe and California have been shown to result in surplus energy (from reduced cloud coverage) that, in combination with drying, leads to a feedback loop that further increases surface temperatures.”

“But, in contrast to these other studies, incoming radiation and available energy were largely unaffected by the 2013 heat wave in Australia. The heating feedback in the woodlands was driven by drying and thus shifts of the available energy towards sensible heat, thereby warming the surface even further. In the forest ecosystem this feedback was not observed.”

“These findings highlight the important role Australian forest ecosystems play in mitigating the effects of heat waves.”

Predicting a more extreme future

This study highlights the important ecosystem services Australia’s woodlands and forests provide—particularly considering the increased prevalence of droughts and temperature extremes projected in the future—and is another example of how TERN’s infrastructure is continuing to catalyse advances in our knowledge of the land-atmosphere exchange of carbon and water across a range of ecosystems.

By accumulating more data about ecosystem processes, uniquely captured via TERN’s flux towers, researchers can contribute to improve our understanding of ecosystem functioning.

A better understanding of ecosystem processes is critical for further development of predictive models which are needed to predict the impacts extreme climatic events will have on Australia’s ecosystems and their services into the future.

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter January 2017

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And, by the Australian Energy and Water Exchange Initiative (OzEWEX)

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Drought ends great green boom and Australia’s carbon budget shifts

Science can’t prevent extreme events. But good ecosystem science is a demonstrably cost-effective way to increase our understanding of the complexities of their impacts, and therefore better inform preparedness and adaptation by communities, industries and management agencies.

A international team from UTS and NASA has used satellite imagery and ground observations collected and made openly available by TERN AusCover and TERN OzFlux infrastructure (OzFlux tower below) to show that the record-breaking green boom of 2011 of central Australia has finished and drought conditions have returned (images courtesy of Aaron Greenville, above, and Suzanne Long, below) 

Dr Xuanlong Ma and his colleagues from the University of Technology Sydney and NASA’s Goddard Earth Science Division have used satellite imagery and ground observations from TERN AusCover and TERN OzFlux to show that the record-breaking green boom of 2011 in the savannas and grasslands of central Australia has finished and drought conditions have returned.

Australia has a naturally variable climate and this finding was no surprise for the researchers, so why does it matter?  Well, put simply, plants absorb less carbon dioxide during dry periods because the process costs water, so a reduction in the absorption of CO2 due to drought can seriously alter Australia’s carbon budget.

In fact, Xuanlong and his team reported that “Each year, land plants absorb the equivalent of more than a quarter of the carbon emissions generated by burning fossil fuels and deforestation. This helps to partly offset global increases in atmospheric CO₂ concentration. In 2011, this ‘land carbon sink’ was unusually large, thanks largely to the greening of Australia’s vegetation, which accounted for 60% of the global carbon uptake anomaly that year.”

Sometimes the combination of heat and drought can be so stressful that plants die, ultimately decomposing or burning and releasing all of their stored carbon back to the atmosphere.

And, according to the data from this study, this is exactly what happened across Australia during the second half of 2012 and into 2013, diminishing the large net carbon uptake the 2010-11 wet year delivered (0.97 Pg in 2010-11 to only 0.08 Pg in 2012-13).

Today, Australia’s semi-arid landscapes remain dry.  That is until the next big deluge arrives and they once again start absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in the landscape.

A very interesting finding as reported by this study is that extreme wet years are getting wetter, wilder and more common—especially in central and northwestern Australia.

“Given a significant increasing trend in extreme wet year precipitation over Australia, we suggest that carbon sink episodes will exert greater future impacts on global carbon cycle.” said Xuanlong and the UTS/NASA team.

“A wilder future with more rain during wet years will have important implications, not only for carbon uptake by plants, but also for many other important issues such as flood risk management, water rights and increased bushfire danger once the landscape dries out again.  We had better keep an eye on that.”

This research using TERN data is yet another clear indication of the very significant role Australia’s terrestrial ecosystems do, and will continue to, play in Australia’s carbon cycle. And, further justification for continued ecosystem observation using TERN’s national infrastructure.

A downpour over Cravens Peak in central western Queensland in November 2011 (image courtesy of Aaron Greenville)

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter December 2016:

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Isles of Winter Delights: my top 3 things about an Okinawa winter

The days are cool the northerly winds of winter have set in so it’s high time to share my top three things about winter in Okinawa. And, just in time for the New Years break…

#1 Yanbaru

Firstly, it’s really not that cold so it’s a great time to get active and explore. The northern forests of Yanbaru offer some great rivers, waterfalls and walking tracks that are beautiful any time of the year. And, the cooler weather makes exploring the island’s castle ruins, or ‘Gusku‘ (グスク), a really enjoyable and much less sweaty affair than usual.

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#2 Produce

Copy of ShikuasaAnother one of my favourite things about winter in Okinawa is the citrus fruit on offer.  The delights of local citrus varieties called ‘Shikuwasa‘ (シークヮーサー) and ‘Tankan’ (タンカン) personally offer much more excitement than the often hyped cherry blossoms. Add local winter tomatoes (grown in winter to avoid disease caused by summer humidity) and garlic to the mix and the winter produce rivals the island’s more famous summer offerings.

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#3 Cycling

Despite the northerly winds that tend to kick up during winter, Okinawa’s colder months are perfect for cycling.  Again, the remote northern areas of Okinawa are the place to head for scenic quiet (and smooth) roads.  And, there’s some pretty good riding on offer too!  One of Japan’s main events on the cycling calendar, the Tour de Okinawa, is held every November and attracts many top level riders – including local hero and regular Tour de France entrant Yukiya Arashiro.

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Detecting landscape change with drones

Over the past few years, drones have become widely available to the ecosystem science community and are increasingly providing new avenues and opportunities for conducting and supporting environmental research.

TERN has provided the research infrastructure and collaborative networks to support a landmark project that demonstrates the game changing role drones can play in characterising, mapping and monitoring changes in our natural and managed landscapes,  including mapping vegetation and landforms, tracking stock movements, and counting animals such as kangaroos.

Importantly, this work is also providing a collaborative platform to develop, test, and verify operating procedures, data standards and data processing techniques, which are needed if Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are to become a reliable and trusted tool for ecosystem science and management.

During September 2016, over 30 people from universities and government departments across Australia gathered at the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Fowlers Gap Research Station to conduct Australia’s first—and one of few in the World—integrated UAV, aircraft and ground field campaign.

Detecting landscape change with drones – Fowler’s Gap UAV Campaign 01 from TERN Australia on Vimeo.

Ground, air and satellite data for more meaningful ecosystem information

The UAVs used during the weeklong event—enabled by TERN AusCover’s collaborative network and well regarded expertise—ranged from your typical ‘off the shelf’ models, right through to those individually designed and constructed to carry a range of instruments. Over 30 instruments, including RGB cameras, multispectral, hyperspectral and thermal sensors and lidar, were carried on 17 airborne platforms.

TERN AusCover provided support for both ground and UAV operations, which also included measurements at the station’s six TERN AusPlots sites, whilst Airborne Research Australia provided a unique opportunity for concurrent and synergistic aircraft observations using a wide range of sensors.  Riegl Laser Measurements Systems GmbH (Austria) also made one of their top-of-the-range airborne lidar units available to demonstrate a UAV compatible survey-grade sensor. Arko Lucieer (University of Tasmania) was one of the event organisers and says that UAVs capture imagery that enable scientists to create models and maps that provide information on a wide range of ecosystem variables.

“This landmark event enabled the simultaneous collection of data on the ground and from the air,” says Arko.  “These sensors provide information at unprecedented spatial detail and the workshop clearly demonstrated capability for scaling up observations to support a range of broader applications.”

“Linking ground, air and satellite data leads to a much better understanding of the way satellites observe the Earth and how observations relate to ecologically meaningful properties of our ecosystems. Through this campaign, we haven’t just strengthened the research network and partnerships in Australia, we have also contributed knowledge to national and international efforts aimed at calibrating and validating satellite products from space agencies.”

Linking ground, air and satellite data leads to a much better understanding of how remotely sensed observations relate to ecologically meaningful properties of our ecosystems (images courtesy of Kasper Johanson (UQ) and Paul Hesse (MQ).

UAVs address major research and land management challenges

Yincai Zhou (UNSW) was instrumental in facilitating UAV operations, stating that the pilots did “remarkably well to collect data that addressed challenges ranging from quantification of vegetation structure and species composition, and change, identification and counting of large native mammals and stock, mapping of bird species distributions and discrimination of geological formations”.

Dedicated teams of scientists conducted relevant, scientifically robust and concurrent ground data collection (including TERN AusCover SLATS star transects for vegetation cover, AusPlots surveys for vegetation cover, height and species composition, and animal surveys) to assess how well the UAV operators were able to address these challenges.

Counting kangaroos and stock

The workshop came up with several exciting applications.  Steve McLeod (NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI)), Rhys Wyber and Xurxo Gago (University of Wollongong) and Matt Allan, Glen Crombie and Max Richardson (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) sought to investigate how data acquired using optical sensors at different camera angles and flying heights could be used to locate and count kangaroos, emus and stock.

“I was blown away by the potential of the UAV technology,” said Steve.  “In our normal line of duty, and with a team of three, we can walk about 200 kilometers a week counting kangaroos, but with the drones, we were able to image a kilometer in about 3 minutes.”

As such, the approach may well be adopted to better undertake surveys of large native mammals, particularly as a permanent visual record is also obtained.

Agriculture Victoria, the NSW DPI and NPWS were also interested in the application of UAVs for more accurate and efficient identification of stock in pastoral areas where knowledge of their density and spatial distribution is essential for determining pasture use and avoiding degradation.

Richard Lucas (UNSW), the event’s principal organiser, says that “Thermal imaging, direct observation, multi-spectral and stereo models were all used to identify large animals and infer distributions within the landscape.”

A multispectral image acquired at Fowler’s Gap Research Site using a Parrot Sequoia sensor that will allow scientists to analyse plants’ vitality by measuring the amount of light they absorb and reflect (image courtesy TerraLuma).

 

Vegetation and habitat monitoring and carbon accountingOpen data for continued science

Other participants tested different sensors to show the variety of ecosystem science applications that can be achieved, such as detailed biodiversity assessments and studies of biomass and carbon storage.

“Various acquisitions allowed up to seven separate canopy height models of vegetation to be generated and the comparison of these will inform others of the optimal approaches,” says Richard.  “In these and other topic areas, the diversity of approaches and innovation was remarkable and the outcomes were beyond expectations.”

Arko Lucieer and his TerraLuma team were able to test a wide range of sensors that provided high quality data for plant species discrimination and structural attribution.  Such information can contribute significantly to ecological research and national datasets (such as the TERN National Biomass Library) and also support applications relating to land clearing, regeneration, fire and carbon budgeting.

Simon Griffith and James Savage (Macquarie University) were part of another group led by the Australian National University that was using UAVs to study birds.

“The workshop showed that UAVs are providing a unique opportunity to capture the characteristics of vegetation which can be used directly to identify ‘favoured’ habitats or as input to species distribution models at fine spatial resolution,” said Simon. “These data can add valuable new perspectives on over a decade of previous intensive ground observations.”

UAV captured imagery can address land management challenges ranging from quantification of vegetation structure and species composition, and change, identification and counting of large native mammals and stock, mapping of bird species distributions and discrimination of geological formations. For example, aerial lidar scans (left) capture the 3D structure of vegetation; and Digital Surface Models (centre) and 3D models produced from overlapping photos indicate elevation and capture the landscape in unprecedeted detail. (Images courtesy of TerraLuma and Kasper Johanson (UQ)).


Open data for continued science

Integrated airborne, UAV and field data acquired at the Fowler’s Gap station, including those from the six TERN AusPlots sites, will be made publicly available for scientific research via TERN’s data infrastructure.

These data—the most comprehensive integrated airborne, UAV, ground dataset in Australia— will also be released as an educational resource and used by the participating institutions.

Adrian Fisher (Joint Remote Sensing Research Program) played a key role in putting together the spatial data layers to support the airborne and field data acquisitions and says that “the new datasets at Fowlers Gap are an invaluable resource that builds on the decades of research conducted previously at the site and will contribute to the development of many remote sensing algorithms for routinely mapping and monitoring Australia’s landscapes.”

In addition to providing the operational support and data infrastructure for this project, TERN is also playing a key role in the development of important protocols for UAV flights and data delivery.

The collaboration of ecologists, land managers and remote sensing scientists using state-of-the-art sensor technology and ground-survey techniques demonstrated how focused effort can significantly advance our studies of complex natural and management systems.

“The level of interest and collaboration between the participating scientists and practitioners was more than we could have hoped for when we developed the concept behind the event,” stated Richard Lucas (UNSW).  “A greater understanding of the capability of UAV sensors, the requirements for ground data collection, and the needs of field scientists was obtained as a consequence”.

TERN, through the support it receives from NCRIS, plays a pivotal role in facilitating such collaborations.  This project is yet another example of how TERN’s shared ecosystem observatory infrastructure is allowing Australia’s scientists and managers to collaborate and synthesise effectively across regions and disciplines.

During September 2016, over 30 people from universities and government departments across Australia gathered at the University of New South Wales’s (UNSW) Fowlers Gap Research Station to conduct Australia’s first—and one of few in the World—integrated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), aircraft and ground field campaign.

Detecting landscape change with drones – Fowler’s Gap UAV Campaign 02 from TERN Australia on Vimeo.

This article has also been published in:

The TERN newsletter October 2016:

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And, the Bureau of Meteorology’s Environmental eXchange magazine:

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Booderee bandicoots bounce back

Joint TERN NESP research delivers positive biodiversity and threatened species outcomes.

The southern brown bandicoot is just one of a number of high-profile endangered species that park managers have achieved protection for by weaving the scientific knowledge gained from TERN’s Jervis Bay Booderee National Park Plot Network into park management decisions (image courtesy of Natasha Robinson)

With the Australian Government’s $142.5 million National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) now in full swing we take this opportunity to revisit our discussions with hub leaders and hear about some exciting new research using TERN’s nation-wide infrastructure to protect our biodiversity.

NESP’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub is utilising the research infrastructure and expertise of TERN to manage the threats and improve recovery of threatened species.

Acting hub leader, Associate Professor Brendan Wintle of Melbourne University, says that access to TERN supported research infrastructure, long-term data and expertise from TERN associated researchers allows the hub to conduct their research more efficiently and effectively.

“Leveraging off TERN has enabled our project leaders to collaborate with Australian scientists carrying out research that fits into our six themes, and access unique ecological data sets for use in conservation research” says Brendan.

“In the field, we are using TERN’s plot networks and TERN expertise to deliver our conservation research.  We also receive advice from TERN regarding data publication policies, procedures and activities.”

“We’re also able to more effectively synthesise across regions and disciplines thanks to TERN’s nation-wide infrastructure.  This allows us to scale-up our research findings to make them more broadly applicable.”

Reintroduction success

One recent example of the positive outcomes of collaboration is the threatened species research underway at TERN’s Jervis Bay Booderee National Park Plot Network. This is one of the 12 ecological plot networks across Australia that have been actively monitored for several years, and in some cases decades, that make up TERN’s Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN).

NESP researchers, together with Chris MacGregor of the Australian National University, are working with park managers (Parks Australia and the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council) to reintroduce threatened species that haven’t been seen in the park since World War One.

The team has recently reintroduced eleven southern brown bandicoots, which, due to land clearing and predation by introduced red foxes, have seen a drastic reduction in their range.

“So far so good,” says Chris. “It’s been three months post-release and our monitoring indicates that they’re doing well.”

“Our camera traps have caught some of the bandicoots, so we know a little about their movements since we wound up intensive radio tracking following their release.  We plan on doing trapping in November to get more detailed data on their movements.”

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Up to 10 volunteers will join Chris and his colleagues from NESP and Parks Australia in November to carry out more intensive monitoring.

“We’re hoping to learn whether or not the bandicoots have settled down and found nesting sites and, if so, how far they are from where they were released,” says Chris.

“During their first month they moved less than a kilometre so it will be really interesting to see if they’ve stayed in that area to nest or have moved further away.”

The southern brown bandicoot is just one of a number of high-profile endangered species that park managers have achieved protection for, including the eastern bristlebird (Dasyornis brachypterus).

Part of the reason managers have succeeded is because they have woven the scientific knowledge gained from TERN’s Jervis Bay Booderee National Park Plot Network into park management decisions. Another is the mutually respectful relationships that have developed between the park managers, and the researchers, who have been working in the park for more than 10 years.

A key part of this partnership was the establishment in 2003 of a new program to monitor vertebrate biota. This work is now part of the TERN Booderee National Park Plot Network, which contains 130 permanent sites at which populations of small mammals, arboreal marsupials, birds, reptiles, amphibians and plants have been measured annually to date (i.e. 2003–16).

Researchers, from NESP and other agencies, are using the network to quantify the response of biodiversity to disturbance (natural and otherwise) and changes in coastal vegetation condition, and the inter-relationships between these factors. The resulting knowledge will inform the management of Booderee National Park.

The collaborative research at Jervis Bay is yet another example of Government investment in TERN enabling our top scientists to monitor, understand and manage Australia’s ecosystems more comprehensively, meaningfully and cost-effectively than ever before.

It’s also particularly pleasing to see the continuing use of TERN infrastructure by NESP’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub following former hub leader Professor Hugh Possingham’s use of researcher networks developed via TERN during the hub’s planning phase. Investing in this kind of ‘soft’ infrastructure clearly delivers more cost effective and productive science for Australia.

Keep an eye out in upcoming editions of TERN’s eNewsletter for more feature articles on NESP’s use of TERN’s critical research infrastructure, data streams and research.

  • The capture and relocation of bandicoots at Booderee NP is a collaborative project between TERN, Parks Australia, the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, Forestry Corporation of NSW, the Australian National University and the Taronga Conservation Society.
  • Data from TERN’s Jervis Bay Booderee National Park Plot Network can be found on the TERN LTERN data portal or via TERN’s improved Data Discovery Portal.

This article has also been published in the TERN newsletter September 2016

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