New technologies for complex issues: Environmental Monitoring is Flying High

In recent years, the technological possibilities of environmental monitoring have increased exponentially. Nevertheless, human instinct and judgment are still required because not everything can be left to technology. Cost is also a prohibitive factor in how much it can be used.

Text: Mirella Wepf

Environmental monitoring was originally a down-to-earth science: Soil and water samples were taken, animal and plant species were catalogued, water levels were measured and national maps were developed. But then research took off - in the best sense of the term. In 1858, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (pseudonym: Nadar) succeeded in taking the first aerial photos of the world from a balloon. He was followed by other pioneers who took aerial photos from airplanes, kites, small rockets and even messenger pigeons, like Hessian apothecary Julius Neubronner in the years after 1910. Another high point was achieved with remote sensing in 1959, when Explorer 6, a U.S. satellite, photographed the Earth from space. But the Earth would not be systematically observed by satellite until 1972, when the Landsat program of the U.S. National Air and Space Agency (NASA) began.

Remote sensing has continued to create new possibilities for environmental monitoring, and there is no end in sight for its development. Terrestrial measurement methods have not been frozen in time either.

Irena Hajnsek, ETH Zurich
Irena Hajnsek, ETH Zurich

A global and forward-looking view

“Looking ahead to the future, I see two central problems”, says Markus Wüest, Head of the Environmental Monitoring Section at the FOEN. The first problem: Switzerland is increasingly shifting its environment pollution abroad due to its imports. In 1996, this percentage was 56 percent, and in 2011, 73 percent. “This is forcing us to take both a global view and responsibility”, explains Markus Wüest.

The second problem involves a technically tricky issue: “How do we succeed in recognizing the risks of environmental pollution early on?” As we all know, ecological systems do not develop linearly with pollution. “A fish stock can resist overfishing for a long time and then suddenly collapse.” Climate change also conceals similar risks. For Markus Wüest, the following is clear: “This challenge cannot be met with monitoring technology alone. But it can help minimise costly damage and lay the foundations for policy-making.”

One example of how environmental monitoring and policy could soon collude is monitoring forests with satellites using electromagnetic waves. “Depending on the waves emitted by a satellite, it receives different signals from plants”, explains Irena Hajnsek, Professor of the Chair of Earth Observation at ETH Zurich. “Long waves even penetrate the forest down to the soil and measure its inner structure very precisely.” The CO2 stored in the biomass could be calculated in this way, which would make it technically easier to implement the UN’s “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+) programme. REDD+ uses financial incentives to promote the protection of forests as carbon sinks.

New satellite programmes in Europe

In recent decades, following the example of the U.S., Europe has made great strides in space research and developed itself into a player in this area. In fact, the European Union’s Copernicus Earth Observation Programme (formerly Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, GMES) launched the first satellite of its Sentinel project in April 2014. Tom Klingl, geoinformation systems expert at the FOEN, explains its advantages: “The EU used to support individual projects; a long-term programme has now been created from the Sentinel satellites.” It provides data in quick succession and covers a wide range of electromagnetic waves. “The information provided is based on different environmental parameters, such as various types of vegetation and soil fertility, but also aerosols in the air.”

These parameters are important in tracking the effects of ecological change. “It would be interesting for the FOEN if in the future, we could better distinguish the types of crops in agricultural areas”, explains Tom Klingl. Why? Farmland and grassland have different effects on nutrient inputs in bodies of water. As a result, it would be possible to develop better models with more up-to-date information on these crops.

Although Switzerland is not a member of Copernicus, many Swiss universities were involved in research projects in its previous programme. And the European Environment Agency (EEA), of which Switzerland is a member, has commissioned all of Europe to be covered by the programme’s continuous monitoring. According to Tom Klingl, several data sets being produced right now would interest the FOEN. “Some of them pertain to the forest layer and information about the thickness of tree crowns, the imperviousness layer, which provides an overview of soil sealing, and the urban atlas.” The urban atlas provides insightful information about closeness to nature and quality of life in cities.

Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO SenseFly
Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO SenseFly

From large maps to plastic models

Copernicus is not the only futuristic project. That is also how Irena Hajnsek of ETH Zurich describes Germany’s TandEM-X satellite mission launched in 2010. “Two twin satellites are creating a three-dimensional image of the world.” Before that, there was no standard model for global elevation measurement. But this type of satellite is urgently needed as the basis for various earth science applications.

“3D images in themselves are nothing new”, explains Tom Klingl. “But using airplanes and satellites supplies us with more current data on much larger and more inaccessible sites”. Frequently repeated 3D images of snow cover also help provide increasingly better predictions of the expected snowmelt runoff and available water supplies. The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape (WSL) is now working intensively in this area of research.

In the meantime, 3D applications have become not only more scientifically, but also economically successful. For instance, SenseFly and Pix4D, two spin-offs from the University of Applied Sciences in Lausanne (EPFL), have created a sensation: In 2013, they developed a three-dimensional model of the Matterhorn using mini drones. “We wanted to show what these devices are capable of in extreme conditions”, explained Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO of SenseFly. Since then, technology has come so far that several drones could operate as a flock. They are used in agriculture and environmental monitoring to research sea turtles and for humanitarian aid. The UN Institute of Training and Research (UNITAR) used them in February 2012 to gain an overview of several neighbourhoods of Port au Prince, as Haiti’s capital city is still in a dire situation after the huge earthquake in 2010.

Charlotte Steinmeier, WSL
Charlotte Steinmeier, WSL

Using technology for specific purposes

A lot of hype has been created around the drones in the last few years and is also noticeable in environmental monitoring. In FOEN expert Tom Klingl’s opinion: “It makes sense to use the technology for local research, such as when monitoring a small mire site.” Charlotte Steinmeier, expert in remote sensing at the WSL, agrees with him but adds that small aircraft are not as useful in taking images of large areas. Some of the reasons for this are their limited battery power and the legislation: Drones may only fly within eyesight, which means they must always be within the sight of their operator.

In Charlotte Steinmeier’s view, the good aerial images produced by Swisstopo, for example, should be used rather than the drones and be complemented by satellite data. “And we have to ask ourselves what we really need to monitor land in a modern way.” This does not necessarily involve continuously improving the resolution of the images. It is more important to take images more frequently.

New ground

Markus Wüest, Head of the Environmental Monitoring Section at the FOEN, also acknowledges that new and best monitoring methods need to be combined in a balanced way. “Measuring pollutants by satellite does not make our current monitoring network obsolete, but can be combined with it and used for early warning”, he is convinced. This also applies to other areas such as forest and water.

In addition, there are some promising developments in terrestrial environmental monitoring that should be pursued. “Many well-known technologies such as laser, radar and pollution sensors are becoming increasingly cheaper; this is opening up new opportunities for research”, says Markus Wüest. The crowdsourcing aspect, where information is acquired from many different little sources, is also exciting: “There are cars that already measure air quality inside and outside the vehicle.” It is only a matter of time before these data will be collected and used for a real-time warning system.

IBM’s attempt to replicate human abilities in pattern recognition was visionary and could be very useful for interpreting environmental data. “The human mind is still far superior to computers when it comes to interpreting images”, emphasises Markus Wüest. This is one reason why “manual labour” may still very often be required in the most modern satellite monitoring.

When asked whether innovations will be observed in soil monitoring, Markus Wüest changes tack from technology to politics. Soil quality will probably change very slowly. “Quantity should not get lost in all the discussion about quality!” According to Swiss land statistics since 1985, every year Switzerland loses around 35 square metres of arable land. Here, it is a question of spatial planning and policy. Ultimately, the following is true: Environmental monitoring only serves sustainable development if it is applied in concrete measures.

Further information

Last modification 11.02.2015

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