Monitoring and Preserving Mexico’s Biodiversity

Monitoring and Preserving Mexico’s Biodiversity

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The National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity is utilising geospatial technologies to preserve and monitor the biodiversity, ecosystem and marine life of Mexico.

Biodiversity — for many this would not be the primary application field for geomatics. Nevertheless, geospatial information is becoming increasingly important for monitoring, reporting and decision making in biodiversity. A prominent example can be seen in Mexico, one of the mega biodiverse countries of the world. Mexico forms part of a small group of nations that possess the largest number and diversity of animals and plants, an estimated 70% of the global species diversity.

The National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) was formed in 1992 to obtain, manage, analyse and distribute information on the biological diversity of México. For this purpose, the National System for Biodiversity for Mexico (SNIB), the backbone of CONABIO, was created and is being developed continuously.

CONABIO started using geomatics in late 90s, when the term geomatics was not very common in the market, and geospatial applications were basically referred to as GIS and remote sensing analysis. In the beginning, CONABIO used geomatics mainly for visualisation, geographical characterisation and geo-referencing of species data of biological collections. Gradually, over the years, geospatial technologies have found their way in a wide spectrum of biodiversity applications in CONABIO and have contributed significantly to the compilation of the SNIB.

screenshot-of-conabio-website

Screenshot of CONABIO website

Satellite-based monitoring of forest fires
In 1998, Mexico was affected by one of the worst forest fires in the country´s history. The ministry of environment asked CONABIO for an evaluation of burnt areas and a spatial analysis of the principal causes and drivers. This study gave birth to the first operational satellite-based fire monitoring system for Mexico. Within this frame, CONABIO acquired its first Satellite Direct Readout station in 1999 to receive AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) satellite data of the NOAA-NPOESS satellite series to set up a near-real-time fire observation platform. Relevant forest fire information was distributed up to eight times on the same day, including the characterisation of fires concerning location, accessibility, and landuse/cover type. In 2002, the system capacities were enhanced to receive additional satellite data of the Terra/Aqua-MODIS sensor (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer), which enhanced the reliability of detected fires, due to a much higher radiometric sensitivity of the sensor in comparison to AVHRR (Ressl et al., 2009). The higher certainty of detected fires led to an enhanced automation of the programme, as visual quality control could be reduced to a minimum. Further investment in hardware resulted in a reduced response time, enabling a publication of the “hot spots” and forest fire related information within 30- 60 minutes, including satellite reception and processing time. As the reception circle of the CONABIO station covers all Central American countries up to Panama, the same information was generated daily for all countries in the region free of charge starting in the year 2003. Information and products are customised for registered users of each country in order to provide only the necessary information requested. This fast response time and the national coverage of

information have made CONABIO´s system the primary data source for several Mexican governmental entities in charge of forest fire reporting and combating, such as the Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT), the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and in particular the National Center of Forest Fire Control of the National Forest Commission (CONAFOR).

The months of April-May are the peak season of forest fires and prioritisation of fires, numbering thousands, becomes increasingly important to organise and manage limited firefighting resources. Therefore, the actual development and enhancements of the system are focusing in providing additional information for each fire for decision making, such as fire propagation risk, dryness of vegetation and in future information on fuel, fire radiative energy and associated estimated CO2 emissions.

MODIS DB station provides data for continuous fire monitoring
MODIS DB station provides data for continuous fire monitoring

Monitoring Mexican mangroves
Coastal wetlands, in particular mangroves, provide a variety of environmental services and represent a highly productive and biologically rich ecosystem. Mangroves are nesting and breeding spots for a multitude of bird species and form principal habitat for a diversity of marine fauna, such as mollusks and crustacean as well as for numerous endemic species. Besides, they control flooding, form a natural border to protect the coastline against hurricanes and erosion, provide organic material and nutrients for other ecosystems such as sea grass or coral reefs. More recently mangroves are also recognised as principal wetland ecosystems with importance to capture greenhouse gases, in particular CO2. Despite their importance, the global mangrove coverage has decreased significantly. It is estimated that in the last decades 35% of the world´s mangroves have been destroyed (Valiela et al. , 2001).

Mexico unfortunately is no exception and the main drivers of change result from anthropogenic activities, mainly tourism and construction, agriculture, livestock breeding and shrimp farming. Mexico is among the countries with the largest mangrove extensions globally. Nevertheless until the year 2005, official reports on mangrove coverage in México showed large discrepancies ranging from approximately 440,000 ha to 890,000 ha (2000). These inconsistencies, together with missing detailed cartographic information on a national scale, made it practically impossible for decision makers to get a clear and complete picture of the situation of this ecosystem in México.

Therefore, in 2005, CONABIO decided to set up a monitoring programme based on satellite and in-situ information to provide baseline information for decision makers for the environmental protection of this ecosystem. Country-wide, high resolution SPOT-5 satellite data was classified to derive the first mangrove maps at a scale 1:50.000 for the entire country. The classification results were validated by independent helicopter flights, resulting in more than 100,000 air photos distributed over more than 10,000 km flight line. The overall accuracy of the mapping exercise was 90%. Within the framework of the project, a network of mangrove experts of the country was established to define critical zones on basis of this cartography. In total, 81 priority sites with restoration needs could be delineated. In order to evaluate long-term changes and trends, during a second phase of the project, SPOT-5 satellite data of the year 2010 as well as more than 2000 historical panchromatic air-photos taken between 1970s-80s were classified, providing an overall observation period of more than 35 years. Additionally, for 2005 and 2010, satellite data at 5km buffer around mangrove areas was classified to determine the major agents and drivers of change. To complete the picture, over 600 in-situ plot sites have been established in parallel to monitor local data on hydrology and biophysical parameters. All information is entering the Mangrove Monitoring System of Mexico (SMMM) of CONABIO, which makes this ecosystem meanwhile one of the best studies ecosystems in Mexico on a national scale. CONABIO´s mangrove cartography was finally used as one of the primary data sources of the Mexican ministry of environment to enhance the protection status of this ecosystem to the status of an endangered species/ecosystem (NOM59) in the year 2008. Additionally, the National Environmental Prosecution (PROFEPA) is using the multi-annual cartography as reference information for the detection and surveillance of illicit anthropogenic activities within this ecosystem.

Satellite derived products such as Sea Surface Temperature (SST) provide crucial information for coastal ecosystem monitoring
Satellite derived products such as Sea Surface Temperature (SST) provide crucial information for coastal ecosystem monitoring

Marine monitoring
Since 2009, CONABIO has implemented the Satellite based Ocean Monitoring System (SATMO), which provides data on ocean water properties, such as sea-surface temperature and ocean color (chlorophyll-a concentration) among others in near–real-time (Ressl&Cerdeira, 2012). The data is used to study long-term changes of these geo-biophysical parameters and their potential effects on biodiversity, such as species abundance and migration patterns. Additionally, the satellite data provides useful information for monitoring marine and coastal ecosystems. In this context, CONABIO is monitoring the thermal stress on the Mesoamerican Coral Reef System, the second largest coral reef system of the world. The main goal is to develop thermal stress indicators based on water temperature anomalies and on water quality properties. This will finally lead to an early-alert system for coral bleaching events and help to monitor the health and degradation processes of these ecosystems. The satellite- based alert system is complemented by buoy observations in the region and by a network of thermometers measuring the temperature directly on the corals.

Furthermore, the combined system is used to monitor the presence and development of algae blooms, phenomena frequently observed in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean due to upwelling processes, which provide nutrient rich waters to the Yucatan platform. These processes, commonly known as “red tide” may be harmful to fish stocks and even to humans and sometimes have significant economic effects slowing down fisheries and tourism. Currently, these events are monitored visually, which is time consuming and costly and usually does not allow quantifying exactly the problem with respect to location, extension and distribution. CONABIO therefore works closely together with regional institutions and health ministries in the development of an early-alert system for algae blooming events, in order to provide timely information to decision makers.