Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health



File 20170811 1159 km7y0f
Social media posts, such as this image uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.
Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Susanne Becken, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Griffith University

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help.


Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online.
Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef.
Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.


Read more: Survey: two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef tourists want to ‘see it before it’s gone’.


Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

The ConversationWhile it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Half the world’s ecosystems at risk from habitat loss, and Australia is one of the worst


James Watson, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland

Habitat loss is the most insidious of all threats facing land-living wildlife, and protected areas like national parks are one of the best ways to combat the destruction. But in research published recently in Conversation Letters, we show that in some places the pace of protected areas isn’t keeping up with the losses.

We found that since 1992, an area of natural habitat two-thirds the size of Australia has been converted to human use (such as farms, logging or cities). Half of the world’s land area is now dominated by humans.

When we looked at specific habitats (or “ecoregions”), we found that in almost half of them, more habitat has been lost than has been protected. Of developed nations, Australia is performing the worst.

This week, 196 signatory nations of the Convention of Biological Diversity, including Australia, are meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to discuss their progress towards averting the current biodiversity crisis.

While topics will vary widely from dealing with climate change, invasive species and illegal wildlife trade, a chief issue will likely be one that has been central to the convention since its ratification at Rio in 1992: how best to deal with habitat loss.

The view from space

Human activity affects the planet on a scale so vast it can be easily seen from space. Whether it’s deforestation in the Amazon, urban development in Asia, or mining in the Arctic, humans have modified Earth’s land area dramatically.

For almost all wild species on Earth, once the places they live have been dramatically altered, they are unable to survive in the long term. The number of vertebrate species extinctions has been 53 times higher than normal since 1900, and the majority of them are associated with direct habitat loss.

The best tool we have at our disposal to combat habitat loss, alongside strict land regulation, is the creation of large, well-connected protected areas, especially in places that are likely to be at risk of future destruction.

When well managed and strategically placed, protected areas work at protecting biodiversity from destructive actives such as agriculture, mining and urbanisation.

In the two and a half decades since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, there has been a dramatic increase in protected areas. Now 15% of the land is placed under protection – an area greater than South and Central America combined.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it may not be enough.

Half Earth

Using the latest update of the global human footprint, we discovered that while 75% of the world has a clear human footprint, more than 50% of the world’s land area has been significantly converted to human dominated land uses.

The degree of degradation varies across the major ecosystems. Some areas such as the tundra have been only slightly modified. Other ecosystems have been decimated: 90% of mangroves and sub-tropical forests have been converted to human uses.

Concerningly, since the convention was ratified in 1992, an extra 4.5 million square kilometres of land has been converted from natural habitat to human land uses. And much of this loss occurred in areas that already faced considerable losses in the past.

As a consequence, almost half of the world’s 800 ecoregions – those places that have distinct animal and plant communities – should be classified at very high risk, where 25 times more land has been converted than protected.

Forty-one of these ecoregions are in crisis, where humans converted more than 10% of the little remaining habitat over the past two decades and there is almost nothing left to protect.

41 of the world’s ecoregions are in crisis.

These crisis ecoregions are concentrated in Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), and Africa (Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola). It’s crucial that we establish protected areas in these places, but conflict and corruption make them some of the hardest places for conservation to work.

Australia: world expert in land clearing

While crisis ecoregions are mostly confined to the developing world, arguably the most concerning outcome of our research is that in many developed countries, like the United States and Canada, the proportion of protected areas to habitat loss is slipping.

And Australia is the worst performing developed nation of them all. Habitat loss greatly outpaced protection in 20 of Australia’s most wildlife-rich ecoregions. The most threatened ecoregions now include savannas in the southeast and southwest of Australia, and southeast temperate forest ecosystems.

Our analysis shows massive habitat loss occurred in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia during the past two decades, driven by land clearing for pasture, agriculture and urbanisation.

Australia has extremely high land-clearing rates and is the only developed nation now containing a deforestation front.

Arguably, things will continue to get worse without land-clearing law reform, but this is challenging, as shown by the recent failure of Queensland’s vegetation law changes and the poor vegetation-offset reforms in New South Wales.

Time for global action

As nations meet in Mexico to discuss their progress towards the Convention of Biological Diversity’s 2020 strategic plan, it is now time for them to undertake a full, frank and honest assessment on how things are progressing.

This means recognising that the current situation, where nations only report on protected area expansion, clearly tells half the story – and it is jeopardising the chance for halting the biodiversity crisis.

Australia must take the lead. It is time for this nation – one of the most wildlife-rich in the developed world – to account fully for both conservation gains and losses, and as such formally report on how much habitat is being destroyed. This is the necessary first step to identify ways to mitigate these losses and prioritise conservation actions in those regions that are at risk.

At the same time, all nations must recognise that the integrity of habitat within existing protected areas must be maintained, especially in those areas that contain imperilled species. Allowing activities which cause habitat loss to occur in protected areas is a backwards step for conservation, and governments must enforce their own environmental policies to stop this.

A good example is Springvale Station in Queensland, where mining is being considered within a newly purchased protected area, clearly threatening its biodiversity.

We need to change how we report on, and deal with, habitat loss, otherwise the mission of the convention – to stop the global extinction crisis – will fail.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Moreno Di Marco, Postdoctoral Researcher in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland, and Richard Fuller, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rising extreme weather warns of ecosystem collapse: study


Alfredo Huete, University of Technology Sydney and Xuanlong Ma, University of Technology Sydney

The world’s climate is already changing. Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, and heatwaves) are increasing as global temperatures rise. While we are starting to learn how these changes will affect people and individual species, we don’t yet know how ecosystems are likely to change.

Research published in Nature, using 14 years of NASA satellite data, shows eastern Australia’s drylands are among the most sensitive ecosystems to these extreme events, alongside tropical rainforests and mountains. Central Australia’s desert ecosystems are also vulnerable, but for different reasons.

As the world warms, this information can help us manage ecosystems and to anticipate irreversible changes or ecological collapse.

Maps created using satellite data to show which ecosystems are most sensitive to climate (orange) and least sensitive (green). Both could be worrying as the world warms.
Seddon et al.

Tipping points

Ecological theory tells us that as ecosystems become unhealthy, they approach critical thresholds (also referred to as tipping points). The more unhealthy they become, the quicker they respond to disturbances.

Ecosystems that cross a critical threshold are transformed into new states, often with losses in biodiversity, exotic species invasions, and sudden forest die-off events. For example, over the past 10 years, ecosystems in the western US have experienced large-scale tree deaths and native, black grama grasslands have been transformed to the exotic, South African Lehmann lovegrass.

Farms and crops can be thought of as agricultural ecosystems, and they are highly sensitive to variations in climate. This means they are very challenging to manage for sustainable livestock and crop production under such intensifying conditions of sudden good and bad periods.

As humans we show weakened resistance when we are sick, and we become more susceptible to external conditions. Similarly, slower than normal ecosystem responses to external changes may also be indicative of an unhealthy ecosystem.

Both of these measures, fast and slow, are early warning signs for ecosystem collapse.

Seeing ecosystems from space

But how do we know if an ecosystem is going to collapse? Space offers a unique vantage point. The new research uses data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (or MODIS) satellites. The satellites, orbiting roughly 900 km above Earth’s surface, measure things like snow and ice, vegetation, and the oceans and atmosphere.

The satellites measure ecosystem “greenness”, which indicates how much an ecosystem is growing. This is not too different from a farmer visually interpreting cues of plant health based on colour, except that satellites can have the capability to analyse colour in parts of the spectrum beyond our sensing capabilities.

The researchers developed a “Vegetation Sensitivity Index”, which showed how ecosystems responded to changes in climate. They particularly looked at changes in temperature, cloud cover, and rainfall.

One nice aspect of this research is that it specifically shows which climate component has the biggest role in changing ecosystems. For example changes to alpine meadows were attributed to warming temperatures, while tropical rainforests were very sensitive to fluctuations in solar radiation (or cloud cover).

Australia’s dry ecosystems show dramatic changes between wet and dry. This is spinifex grassland during the dry. Spinifex covers around 20% of Australia’s land area.
James Cleverly, Author provided

Mulga woodland during a wet period.
James Cleverly, Author provided

Australia’s vulnerable ecosystems

Eastern Australia’s dry woodlands and semi-arid grasslands, according to the study, are some of the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change, alongside tropical rainforests and alpine regions. The main factor in Australia is water.

This is in line with our recent study conducted in southeast Australia since 2000, which shows sudden, abrupt shifts in ecosystem function over many semi-arid ecosystems. This demonstrated the vulnerability of eastern Australian ecosystems to climatic variability and future extreme climatic events.

The new study also found central Australia’s deserts and arid lands show unusually slow responses to climate variability, which is concerning. Slower responses may be an early warning that these ecosystems are approaching a critical threshold before collapsing.

But this might also be an adaptation to the extreme climate variability these ecosystems already experience. The vegetation “knows” that the good, rainy times don’t last and therefore they may not invest in new growth that will later become a burden when drought returns.

What does this mean for ecosystems?

This research isn’t the end of the story. Although satellite data are valuable, they can’t tell us exactly what are the causes or mechanisms of ecosystem change. To do that, we need information on the ground, and consistent data over long periods of time is hard to come by. One example is Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, or TERN.

The next step is to attribute the reasons why some systems appear to be more sensitive than others and more importantly, predict where and when the critical transitions will occur.

When forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems approach their critical thresholds, their resistance is weakened and they become highly susceptible to insects, pests, disease, species invasions, and mortality. One way to help ecosystems cope may be to reduce pressures on the land, such as recreation, harvesting and grazing.

If ecosystems collapse, we can mitigate some of the damage by helping wildlife and minimising soil erosion and runoff following tree deaths. But the most important thing is recognising that each ecosystem will behave differently; some may collapse, but others will survive.

The Conversation

Alfredo Huete, Professor, Plant Functional Biology & Climate Change, University of Technology Sydney and Xuanlong Ma, Research Associate in Remote Sensing of Environment, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.