Harnessing Hyperspectral Imaging: A Bird's-Eye View of Biodiversity Monitoring and Climate Conservation

April 30, 2024
Neerja Shah
Harnessing Hyperspectral Imaging: A Bird's-Eye View of Biodiversity Monitoring and Climate Conservation

Hyperspectral imaging is invaluable for monitoring biodiversity and conserving ecosystems, from analysing land cover to protecting forests and coastal areas.

“The planet is amid a biodiversity and climate crisis… and we have a last chance to act…” Marco Lambertini, then Director-General of WWF International (Living Planet Report, 2022).

Biodiversity loss is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, with around 1 million species teetering on the brink of extinction. Over the past 50 years, the wildlife population has seen a staggering decline of 69%. Land degradation affects 20% of the Earth's surface, with 100 million hectares of fertile land succumbing to degradation annually. These issues not only jeopardise the livelihoods of billions of people but also push countless species and habitats towards extinction.

Amid escalating environmental pressures, the need for urgent conservation action has never been more pronounced.

Biodiversity and conservation are crucial in bolstering ecosystem resilience, enabling environments to adapt to changing conditions and withstand various stressors. Moreover, they also underpin global food security, and tracking these can help identify threats to agricultural resources, such as habitat loss and pollution.

Understanding our planet's heartbeat begins with biodiversity monitoring. By observing species populations, habitat conditions, and ecosystem functioning, we gain a deeper understanding of ecosystem services like pollination and water purification, which are vital for human well-being.

Unveiling the Invisible: The Science Behind Hyperspectral Imaging

The pressing environmental and biodiversity crisis demands the immediate deployment of all available technologies and solutions. These resources are vital in equipping decision-makers with the necessary tools to take decisive and well-informed actions to safeguard the natural world for future generations.

Satellite-based Earth observation (EO) has long been pivotal in monitoring our planet's changes. Today, thanks to advancements in micro-satellites and sensor technology, an abundant source of EO data is readily available and easily accessible.

Among new technological advancements, hyperspectral imaging has emerged as a powerful tool to prevent biodiversity loss and environmental degradation by capturing unprecedented detail and accuracy of Earth's surface characteristics.

Hyperspectral imagery provides essential insights into habitat classification, water quality parameters, and biodiversity mapping in coastal areas (Saloum Delta, Senegal, captured by Pixxel's HSI satellites).

By breaking down the electromagnetic spectrum into hundreds of very narrow bands, hyperspectral imagery provides extraordinary details into each image captured, including subtle variations in the reflectance of Earth's surface and unparalleled insights into ecosystems worldwide.

The accuracy and precision of high-resolution hyperspectral imagery bridge the gaps caused by field surveying and coarse-resolution multispectral imagery. This advantage facilitates real-time analysis and decision-making for managing our planet's ecosystems. Hyperspectral imaging plays a vital role in safeguarding our environment, with applications such as monitoring land cover, identifying biodiversity hotspots, assessing coral reefs, and evaluating coastal landscapes.

Charting the Course: Mapping the Diverse Landscapes of Earth

One critical application of hyperspectral imaging is land cover mapping, the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation. Conservation managers regularly monitor biodiversity changes at a landscape scale, often utilising EO data to map species or habitats. Land use and land cover classification systems are also commonly employed in national and international programs to facilitate conservation planning and sustainable management practices.

The granular perspective offered by hyperspectral imagery enables precise classification of vegetation types, soil compositions, and water bodies. By creating detailed maps of Earth's surface features, we empower decision-makers with the necessary tools to implement targeted conservation strategies.

Mapping of land cover in northern California with simulated hyperspectral satellite imagery (ScienceDirect).

Guardians of the Green Realm: Enhancing Forest Monitoring Efforts

Forests serve as the lungs of our planet, regulating climate and harbouring diverse ecosystems, but they face constant threats from deforestation and degradation. The world lost 3.7 million hectares of primary tropical forest in 2023, equivalent to losing almost ten football (soccer) fields of forest per minute!

Hyperspectral imagery captures forest attributes, including tree species, ecological processes, and the early detection of stressors like disease outbreaks and invasive species infestations. Hyperspectral imagery also enables accurate identification and monitoring of forest disturbances, such as wildfires and illegal logging activities, empowering conservationists to intervene timely to protect these invaluable habitats.

The detailed maps generated via hyperspectral imaging serve as foundational data for enhancing forest monitoring efforts. By monitoring forests with precision, hyperspectral imaging contributes to preserving these vital ecosystems and the diverse species they support.

Hyperspectral imaging satellites enable the precise classification of diverse forest tree species, enabling accurate analysis of biomass and carbon sequestration rates (Shizuoka, Japan captured by Pixxel's HSI satellites).

Exploring Wetland Wonders: Unravelling Nature's Mysteries

Similarly, hyperspectral imaging extends to wetlands, among the planet's most productive ecosystems. Wetlands support a wealth of biodiversity, with factors such as climate, landscape shape, geology, and water movement influencing species composition in each wetland.

Hyperspectral imaging helps us measure carbon content in the land and monitor vegetation growth, which are essential indicators for wetland health. It also provides detailed information on plant growth and health in the wetlands. These measurements act as indicators for vegetative biomass and primary productivity, enabling estimations of carbon sequestration potential.

By unravelling the mysteries of wetland ecosystems, hyperspectral imaging helps protect and preserve these invaluable habitats and the diverse species they support.

Sentinels of the Coast: Safeguarding Fragile Coastal Ecosystems

From mangroves to sandy beaches, hyperspectral imagery allows scientists to track changes in coastal land cover, detect erosion hotspots, and assess the resilience of coastal ecosystems to environmental stress factors.Hyperspectral imagery safeguards fragile coastal ecosystems against threats such as sea-level rise, erosion, and extreme weather events.

Further, the spectral signatures captured by hyperspectral imagery can also help pinpoint the sources of contamination, such as industrial or agricultural runoff and oil spills, and track their movement.

Researchers can create comprehensive maps of coastal vulnerability by combining hyperspectral data with other monitoring techniques. These maps can guide policymakers in implementing sustainable coastal management strategies and climate change adaptation.

The familiar RGB picture paints a recognisable picture (left), and hyperspectral imaging reveals previously unseen intricacies (right), providing a wealth of detailed data (Pixxel whitepaper).

Plumbing the Depths: Monitoring Aquatic Environments with Precision

Hyperspectral imagery also extends its reach to precisely monitor marine environments, offering comprehensive insights into global aquatic ecosystems. It can accurately pinpoint pollutants, emerging contaminants, and surface debris in surface waters while tracking indicators such as chlorophyll and oxygen levels.

The technology also plays an integral role in detecting and monitoring harmful algal blooms by analysing the spectral signatures of different algae species. It enables real-time tracking of their growth and movement to effectively manage and minimise their impacts.

A massive Microcystis bloom in Western Lake Erie, captured by HICO (Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean), an instrument installed aboard the International Space Station on Sept. 3, 2011 (NASA).

Preserving Coral Strongholds: A Cornerstone of Ocean Conservation

Lastly, recent advancements in space-based hyperspectral imaging technology offer new possibilities for coral reef monitoring. The degradation of coral reefs, which serve as critical providers of ecosystem goods and services, has emerged as a pressing concern. By analysing spectral signatures captured by hyperspectral imaging, researchers can track changes in coral colouration, pinpoint stress indicators such as coral bleaching, and assess the impact of environmental stressors on reef ecosystems.

This wealth of information empowers conservationists to formulate targeted strategies for reef restoration and protection, ensuring the enduring survival of these invaluable marine ecosystems for future generations.

Embracing Collective Action for Conservation

The road to a sustainable future relies on recognising that bold, interdependent actions are needed across several fronts. This mix of actions includes considerably stepping up efforts to conserve and restore biodiversity, addressing climate change in ways that limit global temperature rise without imposing unintended additional pressures on biodiversity and transforming how we use natural resources.

Hyperspectral imaging offers a bird's-eye view of our conservation efforts. From the ocean's depths to the edges of our coastlines, from the lush rainforests to the arid deserts, hyperspectral imagery provides unparalleled insights into the intricate workings of Earth's ecosystems.

At Pixxel, we're leading the way in using space technology to address climate change and promote sustainability. With hyperspectral imaging, we combine human actions with our ecosystems' health. Join us in making a difference, fostering transparency in how we care for the environment, and building a health monitor for the planet.