The theory that Earth is a globe with a finite space is not new. We are more connected with garbage than we think. We are leaving a heritage to future generations with culture, technology and also garbage. In some cases we are basically putting our garbage under the rug (landfills). If the rug is the ocean imagine how hard will be in the future when next generations will have to deal with it, cleaning our garbage.
We consider ourselves the superior animal, however in most of the cases we are incapable of take care of our own garbage. Are we pigs? No, pigs don’t dump they garbage elsewhere. They live with their own garbage. Sometimes I don’t get it. How can we consider ourselves superior if we are not able to handle our own garbage? Why people still think that garbage will disappear if left on the streets. Every product we use has to come from a place and has to go somewhere. It does not matter the size or the material. In most of the cases the products, after they are used, go to a landfill or a recycle factory. However there are cases where they are left in the streets or dumped in the wrong place. Is it really hard to put garbage in the correct place? Last year I wrote a post about a recycle day for electronics in my neighbourhood and one of my neighbours dumping his old TV in the back alley. Now, I’ve been taking some pictures to prove my theory: we are not that intelligent and we are leaving our dirty culture to future generations. Every piece (small or big) of garbage that we leave is our direct responsibility.
I am optimistic because there are a few amount of people trying to do the right thing and most important: they are teaching children how to take care of the environment. Children are learning already that what we are doing with the environment is not right.
Recently, one of the most intelligent man alive, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, said in an interview: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”. Should we be afraid of Artificial intelligence (AI) because the machines could take over the human race (similarly to the terminator)? For the environmental science point of view, AI so far has been really helpful. First what is AI? There are different definitions, but one of my favourites is:
[The automation of] activities that we associate with human thinking, activities such as decision-making, problem solving, learning…
Thus, it is basically the use of machines (e.g. computers) to solve problems and to help complex decisions. There is a branch of AI called machine learning (ML). It is a scientific discipline which studies computational algorithms that can learn from data. One of the applications of the ML algorithms is to use some particular data to perform classification and numerical regression. But how is ML helping the environment?
Satellites (remote sensing) generate thousands of data every day. Images around the globe with different frequencies band (infrared, microwave, visible to the human eye, etc), time and scales. But How useful can be those images? One example is to detect phytoplankton in the ocean. Phytoplankton are important components to sustain the aquatic food web. The importance of them is beyond of being food for krills. Accurate estimates of chlorophyll concentrations (consequently phytoplankton) are essential for estimating primary productivity, biomass, etc.
Image Credit: NASA
It is possible to use satellites to detect phytoplankton presence in the ocean due the concentration chlorophyll in the surface water. Each frequency channel has a purpose. For example, at certain wavelengths, sand reflects more energy than green vegetation while at other wavelengths it absorbs more (reflects less) energy. However, even using satellites this is not a easy task. Aerosol concentrations could affect the ocean colour viewed from the satellite. Further complications arise when there are also suspended sediments,and/or dissolved organic matter from decayed vegetation in the water. In addition coastal water quality gradually degrades from increased pollution and human activities. To overcome those problems, ML algorithms such as artificial neural networks and support vector machines are used to automatically classify (separating chlorophyll from aerosols, pollution, etc) and detect the presence of phytoplankton in the ocean.
It is also possible to use remote sensing to classify and detect land cover applying the same algorithms to identify and classify different types of vegetation including forests, dead trees in the forest, forest fires, portion of regenerated trees after forest fires, etc. With accurate information is possible to avoid more deforestation, track urbanization, mitigate diseases, understand and control ecosystems, planning, etc.
These are only small samples of how AI is used in environmental sciences. There are so many contributions that is unfair to give only a few examples about the topic.
Keiner, L., & Yan, X. (1998). A Neural Network Model for Estimating Sea Surface Chlorophyll and Sediments from Thematic Mapper Imagery Remote Sensing of Environment, 66 (2), 153-165 DOI: 10.1016/S0034-4257(98)00054-6
Schiller, H., & Doerffer, R. (2005). Improved determination of coastal water constituent concentrations from MERIS data IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing, 43 (7), 1585-1591 DOI: 10.1109/TGRS.2005.848410
Dash, J., Mathur, A., Foody, G., Curran, P., Chipman, J., & Lillesand, T. (2007). Land cover classification using multi‐temporal MERIS vegetation indices International Journal of Remote Sensing, 28 (6), 1137-1159 DOI: 10.1080/01431160600784259
Fact: Humans are changing the world and our landscape and consequently some ecosystems. Is it good or bad? I must admit, my last posts are not really encouraging. We are changing our landscape more for the bad. Sometimes I am searching the internet and then I find hope. After a beautiful ecosystem being totally changed to an infertile ground, Is it possible to rehabilitate it? In Green Gold environmental film maker John D. Liu documents large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China, Africa, South America and the Middle East, highlighting the enormous benefits for people and planet of undertaking these efforts globally.
I couldn’t believe. It is true! This movie proves if humans want to they can do amazing things for the good. I’d like to see more projects like that. I have more links, I will try to read more about it and post here.
Everybody know we are evolving as human beings. Is this true? When I see how clean water has being handled I have some questions. More than a billion people across the globe don’t have access to safe water. Every day 3900 children die as a result of insufficient or unclean water supplies. The situation can only get worse as water gets ever more scarce. The world without clean water. How many times I’ve heard that. The humankind is polluting, wasting, diverting, pumping, and degrading the clean water that we have. On top of that, water has being privatized. Why? Because is becoming rare and only what is rare is valuable! The rampant over-development of agriculture, housing and industry increase the demands for fresh water well beyond the finite supply, resulting in the desertification of the earth. There are companies now saying why don’t we bottle it, mine it, divert it, sell it, commodify it. Corporate giants force developing countries to privatize their water supply for profit. Wall Street investors target desalination and mass bulk water export schemes. Corrupt governments use water for economic and political gain. Military control of water emerges and a new geopolitical map and power structure forms, setting the stage for world water wars. The following two documentaries show how the problem is affecting countries in the world. It is interesting how two documentaries show the same topic. They complement each other.
So, why can we be friends with nature? Is there any hope? According with this recent paper from nature climate:
Adaptation of water resources management will help communities adjust to changes in the water cycle expected with climate change, but it can’t be fixed by innovations alone.
The paper talks about the Pangani River, where the Tanzania Electric Supply Company has three hydropower plants. There, climate change is affecting the water cycle, changing precipitation amounts and droughts duration which is altering the way farmers, pastoralists and Tanzania’s energy company are managing water. All over the world new techniques and planning have been developed. The urban and rural development plans (sometimes) are moving away from large, static projects by combining sustainable approaches of engineering and ecology.
For the Pangani River, leaders adjusted water allocation policies with the changing needs of the communities. Still, they made water availability for ecosystems a main priority by maintaining at least a minimum flow of water to wetlands, riparian forests and mangroves to provide water for wildlife including fish, plants for medicinal use, timber and fruits, for example. Then, as the region’s population swelled, water uses for urban city centres were balanced with the needs of subsistence farmers, pastoralists and the Tanzanian energy company. That same kind of flexibility is the hallmark of the new thinking on water management. Rather than relying on large, long-lived concrete infrastructure, often built all at once and designed based on historical climatic conditions.
It makes sense. Rather than isolating water management issues within a single field, such as engineering or hydrology, the team to solve these problems should include economists, hydrologists, policymakers and engineers. Solutions have been proposed such as the redesigning of water treatment plants that can accommodate extreme rainfall, and the adding of city orchards and grassed bio-swales (which resemble marshy depressions in the land) to slow the flow of storm water from sidewalks. They will act as green sponges all over the city. Thus the water gets soaked up avoiding pumping every time it rains.
Another good example comes from Japan where it is possible to be sustainable (of course I am not talking about the Japanese nuclear power stations). Over centuries they reshaped the land where people and nature could remain in harmony. For the Japanese, it is important that they have a special word for it, satoyama, villages where mountains give way to plains. The satoyama landscape is a system in which agricultural practices and natural resource management techniques are used to optimize the benefits derived from local ecosystems. In the Satoyama villages, each home has a built in pool or water tank that lies partly inside, partly outside its’ walls… A continuous stream of spring water is piped right into a basin, so freshwater is always available. People rinse out pots in the tank and clean their freshly picked vegetables. If they simply pour the food scraps back in the water, they risk polluting the whole village supply. However, carps do the washing up there scouring out even the greasy or burnt pans. Cleaned up by the carp, the tank water eventually rejoins the channel. This documentary talks about the Satoyama villages:
In the Satoyama villages the products obtained (including food and fuel) help safeguard the community against poverty, but without degrading the land, water or other resources. Of course documentaries have a bias towards the ideas which they want to show but can you spot the difference? Also, is water public or private? Am I saying no more bottled water? Am I saying everybody should live in a Satoyama village? No. However I balance must exist between extraction and use. We need to reinvent ourselves.
Do you have anything to say? I’d like to hear your opinion.
Journal References: Palmer, L. (2014). The next water cycle Nature Climate Change, 4 (11), 949-950 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2420
Dr. Agr. Kazuhiko Takeuchi,Robert D. Brown Ph.D., Dr. Sci. Izumi Washitani, Dr. Agr. Atsushi Tsunekawa, Dr. Agr. Makoto Yokohari (2003). Satoyama, The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan Springer Japan DOI: 10.1007/978-4-431-67861-8