Turning the Tide with Technology: How Tech is Helping Conservation Efforts

Images of the ozone hole before, at the time of, and after the Montreal Protocol. As of 2018, NASA has confirmed that the ozone hole is recovering thanks to technological innovation that allowed us to reduce CFC emissions, and the international agreement that required countries to do so. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Technology could be blamed for many of the environmental problems we face today. It’s no coincidence that unprecedented increases in greenhouse gases began around the time of the Industrial Revolution. So what role does technology now play in solving those problems? As it becomes an increasingly large part of our everyday lives, it’s no surprise that technology is also becoming a more central part of the way we try to solve some of our planet’s biggest environmental challenges.

The use of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems is certainly not new. In the 1970s and 1980s, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions from human activity were creating a hole in the ozone layer, the layer of our atmosphere that protects us from most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Recognizing potential impacts the depletion of the ozone layer could have on human and environmental health, countries around the world came together in 1987 to sign the Montreal Protocol which required signatories to use technology to reduce, and eventually phase out entirely, CFC emissions. Since this agreement, scientists have found definitive evidence of ozone recovery. Today, while the ozone hole may be in repair, we now face other challenges. Species are going extinct at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the “background” extinction rate, thanks to issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, and plastic debris. With healthy habitat and the species that depend on it disappearing, we are once again on the brink of disaster and looking to technology for solutions.

So far, technology has been put to use in two main areas: “in situ conservation” and “ex situ conservation.” According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in situ conservation refers to “the protection of ecosystems, natural habitats and the maintenance of viable populations of species in natural surroundings,” while ex situ conservation means “the conservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats.” Recent notable technological innovation focused on in situ conservation efforts have specifically been directed toward addressing climate change, plastic pollution, and better understanding species and their habitats.

System 001 leaving the San Francisco bay, headed for the open ocean. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup

We are all likely familiar with much of the technology being developed to halt the rising average temperatures associated with climate change that are making habitats increasingly inhospitable for living organisms. Solar panels that look like roof tiles, electric cars, “impossible” foods to cut down on carbon-intensive meat production – every day there are new ways to reduce your individual footprint. But will it be enough? The 2018 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stated that we now have 12 years to cut our carbon production by 45% if we want to prevent disastrous, potentially irreversible changes to our planet. This would likely take more than just minor lifestyle changes on the part of individuals. Enter: climate engineering, or, “the intentional large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system to counter climate change.” Unfortunately, many of the projects or ideas that fall into this category are in the early stages of development and are often controversial due to concerns over potential unintended consequences. For now, we must hope that technology finds a way to help individuals and major industries reduce their carbon footprint if we are going to meet the IPCC’s goals.

The bright, 23-foot saildrone at sea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Next, what are we doing to address the plastic mess we are making of our planet? With experts projecting a 40% increase in plastic production over the next decade, the onslaught of marine animal deaths caused by plastic debris seems unlikely to stop. As awareness of this massive plastic problem has increased, so have the devices created to address it. Perhaps no plastic-debris-collecting device is more infamous than that created by The Ocean Cleanup Project. After leveraging the most successful crowdfunding campaign of its time into partnerships with tech giants like Microsoft and Salesforce, 21-year old inventor Boyan Slat launched “System 001,” a massive floating device meant to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, after only a few months at sea, System 001 returned to San Francisco after breaking and failing to collect any plastic. Even before this failure, scientists had expressed concerns over the device’s ability to withstand rough ocean conditions, a lack of understanding of marine plastic distribution, the possibility of damaging the ecosystem known as the neuston, and the dismissal of many experts’ concerns about the project. With Slat claiming that a new and improved system will be launched in the near future, the debate continues over whether ambitious technology such as Slat’s device is really the answer, or if it just distracts public attention and often scarce financial resources away from those working to make more systemic change.

Aerial drones could supplement or even replace traditional methods of studying organisms such as sea turtles. Credit: Kelly Martin

Technology is also being used to collect information on the world’s dwindling species and their habitats in order to better understand how to protect them. Using technology, we can get very close to pinpointing the location of animals like sharks and whales in order to understand their patterns and prevent negative interactions with humans. In 2008, this type of information was used to create speed limits for ships in specific areas where whales are known to migrate. Today, that technology is being used to create a fine-scale advisory system to give whales additional protection from ships. Drones may also become another essential tool in our efforts to monitor and conserve species. New research is revealing the benefits of using aerial drones to study species such as sea turtles over larger scales than would have otherwise been possible on foot or by boat. A different type of drone, a bright orange, 23-foot unmanned sailboat, called a Saildrone, could also revolutionize the way we study the ocean and its inhabitants by allowing researchers to reach remote parts of the ocean at a low cost. Just as data has been used to help protect whales from ship collisions, all of this information we collect is only useful if policy-makers or other innovators use it to inform conservation management strategies or policy.

If all of our in situ conservation efforts fail, ex situ measures may be our last resort — a Noah’s Ark-like attempt to preserve whatever is left of the diversity of life on Earth. But is that really the world we want to live in? A world where living organisms must be kept in controlled conditions because their natural habitats have been damaged beyond repair? If we want to avoid that fate, we will likely need technology to help us. Just as effective policy needs to be informed by science and the voices of many stakeholders, effective technological solutions need the same. We need look no further than the shrinking hole in the ozone layer to see that we’ve managed to address massive environmental challenges by bringing together science, technology, and policy before. Perhaps it’s time to look to our past to help save our future.

Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the sixth article in the series, read the first article here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.