27 January, 2021

GEO-GEE project: Coastal ecosystems

Seagrasses are found in shallow, salty and brackish waters in many parts of the world. Often mistaken for seaweeds, seagrasses are actually plants with roots and flowers that provide coastal protection to more than 100 million people. Their contribution is one of the most vital, nature-based solutions that responds directly to the societal and environmental impacts of climate change. 

Scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) are working on the Global Seagrass Watch project to design, develop and commercialise a cloud-native seagrasses and seascape monitoring service. 

The project is one of the 32 selected as part of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) - Google Earth Engine (GEE) Program that provides funding to tackle environmental and social challenges using open Earth Observation (EO) data, modern EO advances, and openly available field-collected data.

We spoke with the Project Manager and Lead Scientist, Dr. Dimos Traganos, to learn more about how his team is using GEE to increase awareness and information about seagrass and seascape habitats.

Dimos, can you please provide us with an overview of your project?

We aim to build an online, cloud-native mapping service within GEE. This serverless and innovative platform will provide data-driven information and insights pertaining to the distribution, health, trajectory and services of coastal ecosystems. In particular, blue carbon stocks which are the carbon captured and stored by living coastal organisms. 

We are building this service because recent advances in EO have made it more feasible for us to build an intelligent digital solution. To calibrate and validate our AI-guided mapping products, we’re now able to leverage the following technological advances in our project:

  • Cloud computing
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) frameworks
  • Open multi-temporal satellite data mosaics 
  • In-situ public inventories 

What challenges do you want to tackle with the Global Seagrass Watch?

There are three main challenges we aim to tackle through our project. 

  1. The lack of accurate, data-driven information around the ongoing degradation and loss of coastal ecosystems and related biodiversity. 
  2. The lack of planetary-scale data on the blue carbon stocks that both seagrasses and mangroves absorb. 
  3. The infancy in seagrass-related Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and nature-based solutions that countries could utilise to assist their national climate change ambitions following the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Through our algorithmical developments and mapping efforts, we want to tackle these three challenges using EO technology, thus enabling us to provide valuable data on the distribution and carbon stocks of seascape ecosystems. 

Covering these data gaps will aid scientists, policy makers, and governments to better protect and manage these habitats and their vital ecosystem services. It will also strengthen their climate action by providing the necessary, yet currently restricted, scientific evidence and insights concerning seagrasses and their interconnected seascape realm

How important are seascape ecosystems to our communities? 

Coastal seascapes like seagrasses, mangroves, coral reefs and tidal flats support the livelihoods of over three billion people in up to 160 countries by providing a wide range of regulating, provisioning, and cultural ecosystem services. For example, coastal seascapes absorb 70% of the total oceanic carbon pool, support 25% of global biodiversity, and offer coastal protection to people and infrastructure from extreme weather events by reducing more than 50% of tidal heights. 

The degradation of seascapes, the lack of data-driven information on this regression, and the uneven level of protection through the present world’s marine-protected areas and inclusions in current NDCs all present a serious risk towards our adaptation and mitigation efforts to restrict global warming to less than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. 

How does GEE help you achieve your project related goals? 

GEE helps us achieve our goals through its easy-to-use artificial intelligence frameworks, scalability and computational power. The open access to planetary-scale, analysis-ready satellite data archives of EU Sentinel-2 and USGS/NASA Landsat is also extremely beneficial to our project.

How will the GEO-GEE funding help your project? 

The GEO-GEE funding will provide us with much needed technical support and global communication channels to scale up our mapping products and disseminate our Global Seagrass Watch service to a global user base. This user base will include scientists, government and policy makers, working in climate change mitigation and adaptation, global carbon budgeting and crediting, and sustainable development strategies. 

This will increase the impact of our mapping and scientific efforts, ensure the continuation and service beyond the two-year duration of the GEO-GEE funding, and allow transformational and structural pathways to the successful inclusion of natural solutions to climate change. 

EO Data Science’s role in the GEO-GEE program

EO Data Science partnered with Google Earth Engine and the Group on Earth Observations to launch the GEO-GEE Program, which supports GEO member countries to operationalise their science as they strive to tackle the world’s biggest sustainable development challenges. 

In July 2020, 32 projects across 22 countries were selected into the program which offers $3 million USD towards product licenses and $1 million USD in technical support from EO Data Science. This funding and support will help these projects tackle global challenges using open Earth data. Read the announcement and list of winners here

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