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How scientists are using drones to measure the effects of climate change

日期: 2016-06-01
浏览次数: 161

Journalists like to lean on anecdotes to tell stories about climate change, but for climate scientists, data is everything. But data collection is seldom a quick or inexpensive task, especially when that data is best acquired via a bird's eye view of, say, an undulating coastline or a vast expanse of ice.

Fortunately, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], or unmanned aerial systems [UASs]) can serve as robotic avian minions, filling niches for which the conventional methods of aerial data collection? — ?like chartering planes or tapping into satellite data? — ?are poorly suited.

Drones are not new, nor are climate scientists only now discovering their utility as research tools. "Back in 1998, we used what was considered a smaller UAV at that time" for studying ice cover in the Arctic, says James Maslanik, a research professor emeritus from the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "It was a cutting-edge system, it was way ahead of its time," he says of the fixed-wing UAV they employed. It had a three-meter wingspan, a four-kilogram payload limit, and was gas-powered. Maslanik recalls having to drag 50-gallon drums of aviation fuel up to their research station in the Arctic just to get the UAV in the air.

Today's drones? — ?both rotor-based designs, like quadcopters, and fixed-wing versions, which look like shrunken conventional planes? — ?are far more affordable, portable, usable, and capable than what Maslanik was working with a decade ago. That's thanks to the miniaturization of their electronic components, the falling price and size of the cameras and sensors that they carry, and the capabilities of their propulsion systems, which in most cases are now battery powered.

More nimble, accessible

Prior to the emergence of drones, aerial surveys could only be done through the use of manned aircraft or by accessing satellite images, but both of these approaches have significant limitations.

Chartering a plane is generally far more expensive than using a drone and less reliable, since weather can quickly stymie a flight plan. Plus, chartering a plane generally means scheduling it days in advance. By contrast, researchers do need the Federal Aviation Administration's permission to operate a drone, but once they have it, they can use the devices whenever they want, as long as wind speeds are within the particular UAV's threshold.

David Johnston, an assistant professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, says of the switch from chartering planes to using UAVs: "We can go from [launching a drone] to having workable data in four hours, versus maybe four days if we're using an airplane."

Plus, a drone is more nimble than manned aircraft and can be piloted at lower altitudes. Satellite imagery has been a boon to researchers, but cloud cover can make it useless, and it often lacks the resolution needed to do precise work, such as counting animals.

It might sound mundane, but counting animals is a key part of climate research in coastal areas, where population dynamics are strongly tied to changes in factors such as water temperature, food sources, or the loss of sea ice. In early 2015, Johnston led a team that used small fixed-wing drones? — ?the eBee senseFly manufactured by Parrot? — ?to count gray seals along the icy shores of islands off Newfoundland and Labrador. The species was nearly extirpated in the 1820s, but its numbers have been growing since the 1980s. Today, it faces multiple threats from climate change: Warmer temperatures have had impacts on its breeding patterns, and, in the Arctic, melting ice is exposing the seals to a deadly parasite.

The team wanted to determine whether drones could make the work of counting the animals and their pups easier and less time consuming than the alternative aerial approach. In prior censuses, researchers would use a camera (usually hand-held) to shoot from an airplane or helicopter, and then manually stitch the resulting images together? — ?hoping not to count any seals twice.


QQ截图20160610150931.jpg

Gray seals along the Newfoundland Shore as photographed by the Duke University team. The inset photo shows the seals as photographed with the thermal imaging camera. | (David Johnston/Duke University Marine Laboratory/Courtesy Pacific Standard)

There turned out to be significant benefits to using drones instead: In addition to snapping images and video, the software in the drones used GPS data to geo-reference each captured frame. This data was later used to create what are called orthomosaic maps, which were more accurate and useful than manually stitching together images shot from a handheld camera.

Plus, one of the eBee drones that Johnston's team used to count seals also carried a thermal video camera, which detects heat, thereby making the seals and pups plainly visible even if they were obscured by a tree or bushes.

This spring, the team will bring the drones to Cape Cod to conduct more gray seal surveys.

Cold to hot

In warmer waters, coral reefs play a vital role in ocean health. But climate change? — ?specifically, warming oceans and rising acidity from growing rates of dissolved carbon dioxide? — ?has already inflicted significant damage on coral reefs. In the Caribbean, corals are also suffering because key species that feed on the algae the corals harbor, including parrotfish and sea urchin, are in serious decline. That loss, plus nutrient loading from agricultural runoff, leads to too much algae, which chokes the coral.

A 2014 report from International Union for Conservation of Nature predicted the total demise of Caribbean coral in 20 years? — ?unless they can be brought back into balance. The Nature Conservancy is working throughout the Caribbean to help protect and foster healthy coral reefs and encourage sustainable fishing practices.

 

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