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Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize

Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize – the case for analysis ready data (ARD)

Savanna based ecosystems across the world are suffering increasingly from wildfires due to climate change and illegal human activities. In many regions, this puts the fragile ecosystems under threat, so mapping the extent of wildfires becomes important to enable the organisation of mitigation measures.

Recently, Environment Systems supported a Masters student from the University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences, Chris Halliday, in a project that sought to investigate a new approach to mapping savannas. An 1,800 km2 area of Southern Belize was chosen as the area of study. The area was chosen because it suffers from extensive wildfires, which destroy saplings, the habitats of nesting birds, and cause a general decline in biodiversity. Three ‘Protected Areas’ within this area are designated to protect key savanna species.

Currently, the burnt areas of savanna are mapped annually at the end of the dry season in May by visual interpretation of Sentinel-2 optical imagery. This method requires cloud-free imagery, which is not always available. In addition, the timing is not optimal due to rapid savanna regrowth. Radar data, which can penetrate cloud, is not generally used to map burnt areas of savanna as few land managers have the required expertise to handle this data source.

Burn areas in Southern Belize
Burnt areas mapped from Sentinel-2 (left) compared to burn areas mapped using a time-series of Sentinel-1 indices
Step-in Sentinel-1 analysis ready data (ARD) from Environment Systems Data Services. The project investigated pairs of radar images before and after a fire. The physical basis for detecting burnt areas using radar relies on being able to observe changes in backscatter over time. With imagery captured from January to December 2019, object-based image analysis was used to compare radar- based methods with the visual analysis of Sentinel-2 imagery obtained for the nearest dates. The radar-based method detected 87.6 % of the burnt areas compared to the visual analysis, but was also able to reveal more about fire evolution over the season due to the increased frequency of the data capture, and its ability to see through the cloud.

From Research to Action

From Research to Action

In the Caribbean, the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to climate change has greatly impacted coastal areas. The 2017 hurricane season in particular saw massive destruction of coastal infrastructure and habitats. There is now wide recognition of the importance of natural coastlines, with healthy habitats including mangrove and coral reefs. These provide a frontline defence to protect local communities against the effects of storm surge, wind and wave action. The mangroves that grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities. They provide habitat and nursery areas for fish (supporting 80% of the global fish catch) and also act as significant carbon sinks as well as a buffer against storms, wind and waves.

Samuel Pike, one of our Remote Sensing consultants, and Katie Medcalf, our Environment Director, worked with Louise Soanes (Roehampton University) and colleagues in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to produce a research paper recently published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management. The research used remote sensing to identify mangrove extents before the 2017 hurricane and the ongoing recovery. The research showed all sites had some form of recovery from the hurricane, but none had recovered to pre-hurricane Irma levels by 2019. In addition, ground surveys in 2020 identified a high presence of the fast-growing seaside mahoe, an invasive tree which does not have the coastal protection benefit of mangroves. The paper also presents how scientific rules were used together with our SENCE tool to model storm surge vulnerability and to identify those coastal regions at most risk, from future hurricane seasons and areas best for mitigation. This work has provided robust evidence for mangrove restoration and provides an important tool for further studies in the wider Caribbean region to help inform coastal restoration and resilience building activities.

We recently carried out work in Anguilla funded under the UK Government’s Darwin initiative. In our part of the project, we took 100 years of hurricane data detailing their direction, frequency and strength and then used SENCE and the key factors that influence storm surge to provide maps. These show areas at risk from storm surge, where there are opportunities to enhance, restore and recreate natural defences such as planting mangrove and restoring dunes and how these measures will impact on the vulnerability of communities.

Mangroves
Mangroves which grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities
Using the results of this work the Government of Anguilla identified seven priority coastal sites for habitat restoration, including beaches, dunes, and wetlands. Priority action plans for each site have been developed, outlining potential habitat restoration measures. Together with hundreds of community members, project partners have been working to implement the action plans by collecting and germinating seeds, air-layering woody coastal vegetation and planting over 1,000 buttonwood, seagrape, red, black and white mangrove seedlings in some of Anguilla’s most vulnerable and storm-affected coastal areas. Over seven acres of coastal habitat have been restored in the last few months and this is just the start.

This is a great example of our work moving from research to policy and action. With coastal wetlands being the richest source of carbon in the Caribbean, these cost-effective nature-based solutions will help tackle the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity.

On the back of this work, we will be leading a significant new project in the Turks & Caicos Islands funded under the Darwin initiative. The project will provide evidence of the dynamic resilience of Caicos Islands’ wetlands, and how they support biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital. It will evaluate historic change, show how future climate could impact the wetlands, and provide evidence to review the Ramsar Nature Reserve which covers the majority of the southern wetlands of North and Middle Caicos, and a small region on East Caicos. It will develop a monitoring framework and dashboard to view project and ongoing monitoring data, build technical and scientific capacity in local staff, in order to help sustain wetland management in the long term.

Sequestering Carbon through Tree Planting

Sequestering Carbon Through Tree Planting

Following the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Welsh Government in April 2019 and committing to achieve a carbon neutral public sector by 2030, Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) have started to develop a Climate Emergency Response Programme which will work to mitigate the impacts of climate change. BCBC has acknowledged the crucial role they can play through the management of its own assets. One of the key ways to sequester carbon (removing it from the atmosphere and helping to slow climate change) is to plant trees. Environment Systems has been involved in a project that considers the land in BCBC ownership and its management in terms of its suitability for tree planting. In addition, we have looked at the importance of biodiversity which underpins the environment and ultimately our health, wealth and wellbeing as outlined in the Environment Act Wales 2016 and in the recent Dasgupta Review (Dasgupta, 2021). BCBC recognises that increasing the coverage of native tree species will help safeguard biodiversity and add to environmental resilience.

Tree planting schemes must ensure that the right species are planted in the right places and also deliver on a number of the key benefits which take into account the wider role of trees in the green infrastructure such as:

  • Quantifying the possible carbon stored in BCBC land and how much could be sequestered
  • Showing where planting community woodlands will help reconnect local people to their environment and ensure their health and wellbeing
  • Supporting and enhancing biodiversity
  • Slowing surface water run-off to help prevent flooding
  • Helping to prevent pollution from the land reaching watercourses
  • Enhancing landscape quality
  • Enhancing air quality
  • Reducing noise pollution
Bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them
One of the most interesting parts of the project was estimating the current amount of carbon stored in BCBC land and the potential for further sequestration as a direct result of any tree planting scheme. Using established research, which tells us how much carbon is stored in different types of vegetation and soils, and then taking into account factors such as slope and site hydrology, we used our SENCE natural capital evaluation tool to come up with some interesting figures summarised in the table below.
Carbon sequestration
tCO2e = tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e)
Pricing based on DEFRA estimates per tCO2e

When the government and businesses start to put a price on carbon pollution as a means of bringing down emissions and driving investment into cleaner options things start to get interesting. Clearly bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them. If the trees establish well in the areas outlined in this project, they will not only sequester carbon, but aid biodiversity and provide many other benefits to the communities involved.

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

A large amount of the water we drink comes from rivers and reservoirs. Although this water passes through complex treatment processes to make it safe to drink, the time, effort and cost of these processes depends on the quality of the raw water.

Human activities, in particular farming, can affect water quality by increasing the risk of soil mobilisation. For example, when arable land is tilled, soil is exposed. These bare soil fields present a higher risk of both erosion and diffuse pollution when compared to land which has vegetation cover.

We have been working with Anglian Water to identify areas of bare soil and model the risk they present to water quality. This negates the need for extensive and costly ground surveys supporting better management of resources and providing evidence for mitigation activities at farm scale such as planting buffer strips, growing cover crops or moving gateways.

Heigham catchment
Fields measured and modelled track well over time
A large portion of the region Anglian Water manages is used for large scale commercial agriculture. As a result, fields of bare soil
are common throughout the year. However, some bare fields will present more of a risk to water quality than others. The factors that influence risk include:

  • Distance/proximity to river network:Bare fields in close proximity to a river network present a higher risk than fields further away because the soil has less distance to travel before it reaches the river.
  • Slope: Bare fields that drain more steeply present a greater risk of soil erosion since they have a higher risk of soil mobilisation.
  • Soil type: Fields found in areas where the soil type is more vulnerable to mobilisation will present a higher risk of soil erosion if bare.
  • Vegetation: The vegetation found both within a field and between a field and the river network will affect the risk to water quality. Vegetation protects soil from erosion by preventing direct impact from rainfall, slowing down overland flow (reducing its erosive power), trapping sediment and stabilising the soil profile via the root network. Fields that have lots of vegetation between them and the river network are of a lower risk.

We are using Environment Systems Data Services and our Earth observation analytics to model water quality risk in near real-time for the Heigham catchment in Norfolk. This information is delivered to Anglian Water in the form of an interactive Business Intelligence Dashboard, which supports analysis via the visual representation of often very complex data. The dashboard has proved a success and we are currently working with Anglian Water to roll it out to other catchments.

Sphere Newsletter – Special Net Zero Edition is out!

The Summer 2021 issue of our Sphere newsletter has just been published.

In this special net zero edition we look at some of the work we have been doing both in the UK and internationally to help assess and understand the effects of climate change and bring our world back into balance. The journey to net zero is fraught with difficulty and as we approach the COP 26 climate change conference taking place in Glasgow in November the message is clearer than ever. Not only do we have to achieve the balance that the net zero narrative describes but we also have to seek ways and means to reduce the carbon already in our atmosphere. In other words net zero is just the start and getting there is going to take a huge effort from all of us, governments, agencies, environmental groups and us as individuals.

You can view and download a PDF of Sphere here.

or view the web version here.

Sphere Summer 2021

Sphere Newsletter Summer 2021

Welcome

In this special net zero edition of Sphere we look at some of the work we have been doing both in the UK and internationally to help assess and understand the effects of climate change and bring our world back into balance. The journey to net zero is fraught with difficulty and as we approach the COP 26 climate change conference taking place in Glasgow in November the message is clearer than ever. Not only do we have to achieve the balance that the net zero narrative describes but we also have to seek ways and means to reduce the carbon already in our atmosphere. In other words net zero is just the start and getting there is going to take a huge effort from all of us, governments, agencies, environmental groups and us as individuals.

Contents

Why Net Zero?
Our Own Carbon Footprint
Informing Afforestation Policy
From Research to Action
Sequestering Carbon Through Tree Planting

Company News

Space Wales

Why Net Zero?

net zero
According to Bill Gates in his 2020 book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ the world is currently emitting 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. This startling figure has built up year-on-year as post-industrial human activity has increased. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reduced emissions by 5% due to the sudden and unprecedented drop in human activity, emissions are on the rise again. COVID-19 will be a tiny blip on the graph. As greenhouse gas emissions rise so too does the temperature; at least 1 degree to date and predicted to be between 1.5 and 3 degrees by the middle of the century. Temperature rise is proven to cause climate change, the effects of which are widely debated but are deemed to be potentially catastrophic, so much so that a growing number of organisations and governments have declared there to be a climate emergency.

The term ‘net zero’ means achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the carbon removed from it. Net zero has now become a mantra for governments signalling their intention to reach balance, in most cases, by 2050 and, in China’s case, by 2060. The current thinking is that if we achieve balance then we limit temperature rise and therefore more significant climate change together with all the negative consequences that are associated with it. Sadly, as we are seeing in North America, and many other parts of the world, rapid climate change is already underway. Net zero is just the start. The world needs to figure out how it can achieve balance and then start to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions are key to the way forward not only to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to bring the world back into balance.

Our Own Carbon Footprint

Back in 2019 Environment Systems, driven by our staff-owned ethics policy and a commitment to actively support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it was agreed to investigate options for offsetting the company’s carbon emissions.

The Company has had its own BS 8555 accredited Environmental Management System for several years and has made significant strides to reduce waste and cut down energy and water use. In other words, we already had a good handle on our environmental impact and carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint
We have made strides to reduce our carbon footprint and become carbon balanced
Our investigations led us to the World Land Trust (WLT). We worked with them to see what was required to achieve Carbon Balanced status. World Land Trust – Carbon Balanced offset schemes enable individuals and companies to financially contribute to environmental projects which protect threatened forests and restore forest habitats; these types of projects let companies make reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere equivalent to their carbon emissions.

WLT’s evidence-based Carbon Balanced programme focuses on nature-based solutions, such as avoiding deforestation, woodland rehabilitation, assisted natural regeneration and tree planting. As an environmental consultancy, the additional biodiversity benefits associated with these measures really appealed to us. We also felt that WLT’s transparent and flexible project design very much aligned with the company’s ethos of being ready to adapt in line with advances in science. WLT were able to use the figures from our annual BS 8555 audit to calculate our carbon footprint with the resulting financial contribution enabling us to complete the process. We are now proud to be a certified Carbon Balanced company through WLT.

Informing Afforestation Policy

To help mitigate the impacts of climate change and achieve benefits in other areas such as reduced flood risk, the Welsh Government (WG) has committed to an ambitious target to significantly increase woodland expansion by 2000 ha per year. To optimise the outputs of afforestation across Wales, and to demonstrate how nature-based solutions can work in practice, a holistic understanding of the multiple benefits provided by different types of woodland is required. Putting the right tree in the right place at the right sort of planting density could have great benefits not just in terms of ecosystem services such as carbon capture, flood mitigation and water quality but also for key species that use different parts of the woodland ecosystem.

Black Grouse
Black grouse a threatened species with important but fragmented populations in north Wales
This is the subject of a project being carried out with the RSPB. Environment Systems has been commissioned to investigate a number of different scenarios to benefit both ecosystem services and species. In this project, the focus has been on black grouse (Tetrao tetrix), which is a threatened species with important but fragmented populations in areas of north Wales. A moorland fringe species, black grouse inhabit areas containing a mosaic of wetland, heath, grassland, and woodland edge habitat. The thinking is that expanding the wooded areas in key places would increase the resilience of existing populations by connecting areas of fragmented habitat and connecting disparate populations. Planting in these areas is also likely to lead to an increase in water quality and a reduction in water flow peaks which can help flood alleviation. There are therefore good reasons to consider tree planting in specific areas to achieve these multiple benefits.

In this WG funded project RSPB are carrying out research into the diversity of bird species associated with different woodland types, whilst Environment Systems are carrying out carbon storage and sequestration analyses, surface water regulation modelling, and tree-planting opportunity modelling. There is a rich source of up-to-date data available, which makes the modelling work more compelling. We are building on previous work on ‘GIS for Area Statements’ for Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and a series of datasets modelling biophysical suitability for tree planting, created for WG under the Capability, Suitability and Climate Programme. The analyses combine these datasets to identify areas where the soil, topography and climate are suitable for growing trees, but also considers real world constraints, excluding areas where it would not be possible or desirable to plant trees (areas of deep peat, Scheduled Ancient Monuments etc), and areas where tree planting may be possible but additional factors must be considered (‘sensitivities’ e.g., acid sensitive catchments, common land etc).

Tree planting opportunities
Tree planting opportunities maps, commercial and environmental, for the Dee catchment in north Wales
Combining and building on the data from the NRW and Welsh Government projects allows us to consider biophysical, political and sociological influences on decision-making, and modify the decision rules to meet the specific habitat requirements of a priority species. In addition to the work on black grouse, the project is modelling tree-planting opportunity space in three wider catchments (Towy Valley, Elan Valley and the Dee), where the relative carbon and water regulation benefits derived from different afforestation strategies (‘commercial’ vs ‘environmental’) will be analysed.

The output will be used to demonstrate how species and the biodiversity of an area can and should be considered alongside other ecosystem services and planting considerations to give a truly holistic approach.

From Research to Action

In the Caribbean, the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to climate change has greatly impacted coastal areas. The 2017 hurricane season in particular saw massive destruction of coastal infrastructure and habitats. There is now wide recognition of the importance of natural coastlines, with healthy habitats including mangrove and coral reefs. These provide a frontline defence to protect local communities against the effects of storm surge, wind and wave action. The mangroves that grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities. They provide habitat and nursery areas for fish (supporting 80% of the global fish catch) and also act as significant carbon sinks as well as a buffer against storms, wind and waves.

Samuel Pike, one of our Remote Sensing consultants, and Katie Medcalf, our Environment Director, worked with Louise Soanes (Roehampton University) and colleagues in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to produce a research paper recently published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management. The research used remote sensing to identify mangrove extents before the 2017 hurricane and the ongoing recovery. The research showed all sites had some form of recovery from the hurricane, but none had recovered to pre-hurricane Irma levels by 2019. In addition, ground surveys in 2020 identified a high presence of the fast-growing seaside mahoe, an invasive tree which does not have the coastal protection benefit of mangroves. The paper also presents how scientific rules were used together with our SENCE tool to model storm surge vulnerability and to identify those coastal regions at most risk, from future hurricane seasons and areas best for mitigation. This work has provided robust evidence for mangrove restoration and provides an important tool for further studies in the wider Caribbean region to help inform coastal restoration and resilience building activities.

In the Autumn 2020 issue of Sphere, we reported on work we had carried out in Anguilla funded under the UK Government’s Darwin initiative. In our part of the project, we took 100 years of hurricane data detailing their direction, frequency and strength and then used SENCE and the key factors that influence storm surge to provide maps. These show areas at risk from storm surge, where there are opportunities to enhance, restore and recreate natural defences such as planting mangrove and restoring dunes and how these measures will impact on the vulnerability of communities.

Mangroves
Mangroves which grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities
Using the results of this work the Government of Anguilla identified seven priority coastal sites for habitat restoration, including beaches, dunes, and wetlands. Priority action plans for each site have been developed, outlining potential habitat restoration measures. Together with hundreds of community members, project partners have been working to implement the action plans by collecting and germinating seeds, air-layering woody coastal vegetation and planting over 1,000 buttonwood, seagrape, red, black and white mangrove seedlings in some of Anguilla’s most vulnerable and storm-affected coastal areas. Over seven acres of coastal habitat have been restored in the last few months and this is just the start.

This is a great example of our work moving from research to policy and action. With coastal wetlands being the richest source of carbon in the Caribbean, these cost-effective nature-based solutions will help tackle the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity.

On the back of this work, we will be leading a significant new project in the Turks & Caicos Islands funded under the Darwin initiative. The project will provide evidence of the dynamic resilience of Caicos Islands’ wetlands, and how they support biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital. It will evaluate historic change, show how future climate could impact the wetlands, and provide evidence to review the Ramsar Nature Reserve which covers the majority of the southern wetlands of North and Middle Caicos, and a small region on East Caicos. It will develop a monitoring framework and dashboard to view project and ongoing monitoring data, build technical and scientific capacity in local staff, in order to help sustain wetland management in the long term.

Sequestering Carbon Through Tree Planting

Following the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Welsh Government in April 2019 and committing to achieve a carbon neutral public sector by 2030, Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) have started to develop a Climate Emergency Response Programme which will work to mitigate the impacts of climate change. BCBC has acknowledged the crucial role they can play through the management of its own assets. One of the key ways to sequester carbon (removing it from the atmosphere and helping to slow climate change) is to plant trees. Environment Systems has been involved in a project that considers the land in BCBC ownership and its management in terms of its suitability for tree planting. In addition, we have looked at the importance of biodiversity which underpins the environment and ultimately our health, wealth and wellbeing as outlined in the Environment Act Wales 2016 and in the recent Dasgupta Review (Dasgupta, 2021). BCBC recognises that increasing the coverage of native tree species will help safeguard biodiversity and add to environmental resilience.

Tree planting schemes must ensure that the right species are planted in the right places and also deliver on a number of the key benefits which take into account the wider role of trees in the green infrastructure such as:

  • Quantifying the possible carbon stored in BCBC land and how much could be sequestered
  • Showing where planting community woodlands will help reconnect local people to their environment and ensure their health and wellbeing
  • Supporting and enhancing biodiversity
  • Slowing surface water run-off to help prevent flooding
  • Helping to prevent pollution from the land reaching watercourses
  • Enhancing landscape quality
  • Enhancing air quality
  • Reducing noise pollution
Bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them
One of the most interesting parts of the project was estimating the current amount of carbon stored in BCBC land and the potential for further sequestration as a direct result of any tree planting scheme. Using established research, which tells us how much carbon is stored in different types of vegetation and soils, and then taking into account factors such as slope and site hydrology, we used our SENCE natural capital evaluation tool to come up with some interesting figures summarised in the table below.
Carbon sequestration
tCO2e = tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e)
Pricing based on DEFRA estimates per tCO2e

When the government and businesses start to put a price on carbon pollution as a means of bringing down emissions and driving investment into cleaner options things start to get interesting. Clearly bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them. If the trees establish well in the areas outlined in this project, they will not only sequester carbon, but aid biodiversity and provide many other benefits to the communities involved.

Company News

Space Wales

Environment Systems co-founder and Director Steve Keyworth was recently invited to join the Space Wales Leadership Group (SWLG) to provide a strategic view on commercial Earth observation opportunities for Wales. Space Wales is the result of the UK Space Agency funded cluster development project. SWLG has mapped out the sector in Wales, identified the key opportunities and outlined key recommendations and actions to be taken to shape a new space strategy for Wales. These are outlined in a recently published report: ‘Wales – A Sustainable Space Nation.’

Sphere Spring 2021

Sphere Newsletter Spring 2021

Welcome

In this issue of Sphere we are focusing on natural capital and more specifically on our SENCE (Spatial Evidence for Natural Capital Evaluation) technology. The time could not be more prescient with the recent publication of the Dasgupta Review. Commissioned by
the UK Treasury the central message of the Review is one that will be familiar to many. Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on nature, and the accelerating collapse of the natural world is fuelling extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies, our livelihoods, health and well-being. Without an understanding of, and methods for, evaluating our natural capital we cannot move forward with the necessary policies and actions required to protect and invest in our natural world. SENCE was designed to do just that.

Contents

Natural Capital in Context
The Role of SENCE
SENCE for Policy Advisors
SENCE for Estate Managers
SENCE for Supply Chain Managers
Data Dashboards
Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space
Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize – the case for analysis ready data (ARD)

Company News

Iain Cameron

Natural Capital in Context

The recently published Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK Treasury was expertly timed to set the policy making agenda in advance of the UK’s hosting of the COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November 2021. It is clear that in the post-pandemic world the environment will be moving centre stage.

Across the UK where policy making for agriculture and the environment are devolved, we can already see a different approach. In England, the forthcoming Environment Bill introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain into the planning system. This will ensure that new developments enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces for local communities to enjoy. The aim is that, by integrating biodiversity net gain into the planning system there will be a step change in how planning and development is delivered. The bill will provide new opportunities for innovation as well as stimulating new economic markets. This is expected to result in the creation, and the avoidance of loss, of several thousands of hectares of habitat for wildlife each year, which represents annual natural capital benefits of around £1.4 billion. This will increase the public benefits of ecosystems, such as improvements in air quality, water flow control, outdoor recreation and physical activity.

In Wales, the Environment Bill, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and the new National Development Framework ‘Future Wales’, are putting the environment at the heart of place-based decision making. Environment Systems continues to be a key provider of information and consultancy helping Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Local Authorities to understand their environment and green infrastructure in their evidence based decision-making.

Future Wales Natural Capital Map
Future Wales – The National Plan 2040 – Natural Capital map produced with help from Environment Systems

In Scotland, the Government and NatureScot are working towards Natural Capital Accounts and implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy. Scotland has been on a path since the commencement of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. Under this act all public bodies in Scotland have had a statutory duty to further the conservation of biodiversity. In 2020, the Scottish Government report, Scottish Natural Capital Accounts, published the value of Scottish Natural Capital. The Scottish Government has also updated its 2018 Climate Change Plan.

Across the world there are many other initiatives focused on natural capital evaluation and new systems of inducement in the form of credits, which are intimately linked with the move towards ‘Net Zero’ which we will be focusing on in the next issue of Sphere.

The world is beginning to realise that every ecosystem is vulnerable and unique, and there needs to be a universally shared understanding of how these systems work, and how those that have been damaged can be brought back to health. The Dasgupta Review explains how we have come to create these problems and the actions we must take to solve them. It then provides a roadmap for navigating towards the restoration of our planet’s biodiversity in an economic context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern agriculture which enables us to produce food at rates per hectare unthinkable in the past, but at the cost of biodiversity.

The Role of SENCE

It is difficult to even talk about ecosystems unless you can understand how they work, what they consist of and what state they are in. An assessment of natural capital is rising to the top of the agenda and is likely to be one of the most important elements of decision making on farms, estates, regions, and indeed, whole countries, to underpin future sustainable land management policy. Without the tools necessary to assess and evaluate the natural capital inherent in our land, the risks to biodiversity and the opportunities to bring them back to health, the emerging systems of credits, offsetting and achieving balance cannot operate. This is where SENCE – (Spatial Evidence for Natural Capital Evaluation) has an important role to play. Developed over eight years, SENCE is a suite of tools which utilise the latest satellite Earth observation data, existing data, analytics and modelling.

How does it work?

SENCE provides the evidence to show where the environment is healthy and working well. It reveals where there are risks for example, by identifying which land is particularly susceptible to soil erosion, flooding or coastal retreat. SENCE also shows where the best places are to site new activities and developments that enhance natural capital, such as planting schemes.

What can SENCE deliver?

SENCE can be delivered at scales of 400 ha and up to whole countries. This brings SENCE into the mainstream as a direct response to the new initiatives and systems of credits. Now, through an interactive web-based dashboard or digital maps and reports, a policy advisor, investor, supply chain manager or an estate manager can understand the value of the land. This together with the risks to habitats, the possibilities and the opportunities and indeed the economic potential that can accrue from sustainable land management. Using existing data, satellite imagery and highly developed modelling techniques, SENCE can provide an up-to-date status of habitats and land use with detailed information on:

  • Carbon: Sequestration & storage
  • Water regulation: Natural flood management
  • Water quality: How the land is supporting or reducing water quality
  • Agriculture: Field productivity – in near real-time
  • Risk of soil erosion: Showing those areas most likely to be affected
  • Biodiversity risk: Woodland, grassland & wetland networks and protected areas such as SSSIs
  • Ecological networks: These show where organisms can move within and between different habitats preventing each population becoming isolated which helps increase resilience
  • Biodiversity net gain: Woodland, wetland, upland & grassland enhancement
SENCE for Policy Advisors

On many projects, SENCE has been used to inform policy. In Wales, for example, Environment Systems was involved in Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) SoNaRR (State of Natural Resources Report) initiative. SoNaRR set out to be the first country-wide assessment of the health and resilience of ecosystems, and the first assessment of the extent to which Wales was sustainably managing its natural resources. SoNaRR confirmed the link between natural resources and the seven well-being goals set out in the ‘Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.’

Based on the evidence in SoNaRR, Welsh Ministers set out their priorities for policy, and since then, Environment Systems has been working on the next stages, developing the evidence for Area Statements to put these policies into action. We have delivered detailed maps, technical insight, plus user guides, to enable planners and other professionals to make well-informed choices and deliver true sustainable management of natural resources. Woodland Planting is a good example. The Welsh Government has set a target to increase woodland cover by 100,000 ha by 2030. Whilst woodland planting is not always popular with the public there are many places where there is a double benefit such as river catchments. Here planting can be introduced as part of natural flood management. This increases the water storage capacity of the soil and slows the flow of water downstream.

West of England Nature Partnership
West of England Nature Partnership – Woodland opportunities identified to strengthen the woodland network
SENCE was also used to assess the state of the environment in the West of England, for the West of England Nature Partnership. Taking an ecosystem service approach, Environment Systems helped to develop a series of 14 ecosystem service and ecological network maps.
It’s not just in the countryside where natural habitats and green space, such as broadleaved woodland, can play a key role. SENCE has been used by many Local Authorities in Wales as part of Green Infrastructure mapping which highlights the multiple benefits of current green spaces in towns and cities. SENCE is also used to map opportunities to enhance these areas to deliver more, and different, services. Using SENCE, Environment Systems has helped Local Authorities begin to introduce these key concepts into the Local Planning Process.
Roadside green infrastructure
An opportunity map for roadside green infrastructure to enhance air quality
One of the key features of SENCE is that it can be applied almost anywhere in the world and it is completely scalable. In the Caribbean, we have been working with British Overseas Territory governments to assess the risks posed by storm surge and flooding, a direct response to the increased number of extreme hurricane events. SENCE was used to create storm surge risk models, both to inform policy and to identify areas for action to be taken. The models also inform natural capital accounting by placing a monetary value on natural assets that stimulate tourism, for example.

The maps can be viewed online here.

SENCE for Estate Managers

Providing land managers with the wherewithal to fully understand natural capital on their estates, how their land operates and the value locked into their habitats will enable them to get ahead of
the game, and be fully prepared for the natural capital revolution. As we start the journey to ‘Net Zero’, SENCE will be helping the custodians of the land achieve the balance that this target requires.

During 2021, Environment Systems will launch SENCE Estates (see dashboard on previous page) plus follow-on consultancy packages to help land managers make the most of the opportunities their land offers. Imagine you manage a large estate with a wide range of different land use. There will be carbon locked into that land, specific biodiversity and different habitats. In the past, agricultural subsidies may well have determined how the land was managed, but now your natural capital is going to be at the forefront of your decision making, and not least your financial planning.

SENCE for Supply Chain Managers

A global farming and food business working thousands of acres, and employing thousands of people around the world to grow, process, pack and market a range of fresh produce, has to understand and closely manage its supply chain. What happens if the crop is late or that there is a drought, flooding or some other extreme weather event? Supply chain managers have to be able to understand and monitor what is happening, increasingly in as close to real-time as possible to ensure supply chain continuity.

Colombia Mapper
Habitat map of Colombia, one of several Natural Capital maps created by Environment Systems

In Colombia, we have been working with grower organisations to demonstrate how the adoption of a natural capital approach to land management can increase ecosystem resilience, and with that, secure their production against extreme weather events. By modelling existing natural capital, and opportunities to enhance it, together with providing advice on management actions that utilise practical, nature-based solutions, we are opening up new opportunities which were previously unheard of.

Data Dashboards

With an ever-increasing supply of valuable data, there has been a rise in demand for a high-quality means of presenting information to customers, staff, and stakeholders, in a way that is quick and easy to interpret. Dashboards have become an effective way to present data in an accessible and user-friendly manner. They can be a great tool for businesses, government and NGOs alike.

There are several key elements to a dashboard. Most importantly, the information on a dashboard should be presented so that it is easy to understand. All the information needed to make decisions should be on a single screen, facilitating quick and easy interpretation. The dashboard should be interactive to get the full potential from the information being presented, so that users can drill down into the detail if required with a simple click. Dashboards should also be flexible enough to cover as many user requirements as possible, and easy to deploy. The latest web technologies are making this possible.

The data presented within a dashboard can be used for operational decision making; allowing staff to understand events, projects, or assets, by monitoring their status in near real-time. Dashboards can also present data for strategic decision making, where an organisation can track key performance indicators (KPI), and market data.

Data sources can be varied, such as Internet of Things (IoT), market intelligence providers, app-based data collection etc. Environment Systems Data Services can directly feed into such dashboards with the use of our API connectors. These provide the dashboard with a near real-time supply of satellite-derived metrics, which can be presented, and interact with, other key information on the dashboard.

In summary, dashboards provide particular information that an organisation needs in order to run effectively and efficiently presented in easy-to- read graphics and charts.

This will secure the UK aquaculture and food supply chain while producing a high-value, highly-nutritional and sustainable food. The ultra-low carbon footprint food, powered by wind, will increase overall efficiency of the system and develop satellite, Internet of Things and sensor-based UK intellectual capital for export to producers worldwide.

We have co-developed with our partner Triage a SENCE dashboard. This is shown below with a number of different data views.

Web-based Dashboard
Summary tab provides a good holistic overview bringing all of the data together into a single management dashboard. The different tabs display different data views. The maps can even display the quantity of tons of stored carbon and its value based on the current carbon price. The dashboard can also display carbon sequestration over time, and provide ‘what-if’ scenarios for changing one land use to another.
  • Agriculture
    This map shows the vegetation productivity (NDVI) for each field which is automatically updated
  • Grassland networks
    Existing biodiversity, in this case the natural grassland network
  • Woodland and wetland networks
    View indicating the woodland and wetland networks
  • SENCE Carbon
    This view indicates the relative amount of carbon likely to be stored both above and below ground at a field/ parcel scale
  • Woodland planting opportunities
    View shows opportunities for woodland planting which are likely to deliver natural flood management benefits and ranks fields according to their relative value
  • Wildlife network corridors
    Wildlife network corridors
  • SENCE Home
    The home screen provides the introduction to the dashboard and the comprehensive list of data views available
  • Vegetation helps to store and slow water flow
    View showing the way that vegetation is helping to slow and store water

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

A large amount of the water we drink comes from rivers and reservoirs. Although this water passes through complex treatment processes to make it safe to drink, the time, effort and cost of these processes depends on the quality of the raw water.

Human activities, in particular farming, can affect water quality by increasing the risk of soil mobilisation. For example, when arable land is tilled, soil is exposed. These bare soil fields present a higher risk of both erosion and diffuse pollution when compared to land which has vegetation cover.

We have been working with Anglian Water to identify areas of bare soil and model the risk they present to water quality. This negates the need for extensive and costly ground surveys supporting better management of resources and providing evidence for mitigation activities at farm scale such as planting buffer strips, growing cover crops or moving gateways.

Heigham catchment
Fields measured and modelled track well over time
A large portion of the region Anglian Water manages is used for large scale commercial agriculture. As a result, fields of bare soil
are common throughout the year. However, some bare fields will present more of a risk to water quality than others. The factors that influence risk include:

  • Distance/proximity to river network:Bare fields in close proximity to a river network present a higher risk than fields further away because the soil has less distance to travel before it reaches the river.
  • Slope: Bare fields that drain more steeply present a greater risk of soil erosion since they have a higher risk of soil mobilisation.
  • Soil type: Fields found in areas where the soil type is more vulnerable to mobilisation will present a higher risk of soil erosion if bare.
  • Vegetation: The vegetation found both within a field and between a field and the river network will affect the risk to water quality. Vegetation protects soil from erosion by preventing direct impact from rainfall, slowing down overland flow (reducing its erosive power), trapping sediment and stabilising the soil profile via the root network. Fields that have lots of vegetation between them and the river network are of a lower risk.

We are using Environment Systems Data Services and our Earth observation analytics to model water quality risk in near real-time for the Heigham catchment in Norfolk. This information is delivered to Anglian Water in the form of an interactive Business Intelligence Dashboard, which supports analysis via the visual representation of often very complex data. The dashboard has proved a success and we are currently working with Anglian Water to roll it out to other catchments.

Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize – the case for analysis ready data (ARD)

Savanna based ecosystems across the world are suffering increasingly from wildfires due to climate change and illegal human activities. In many regions, this puts the fragile ecosystems under threat, so mapping the extent of wildfires becomes important to enable the organisation of mitigation measures.

Recently, Environment Systems supported a Masters student from the University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences, Chris Halliday, in a project that sought to investigate a new approach to mapping savannas. An 1,800 km2 area of Southern Belize was chosen as the area of study. The area was chosen because it suffers from extensive wildfires, which destroy saplings, the habitats of nesting birds, and cause a general decline in biodiversity. Three ‘Protected Areas’ within this area are designated to protect key savanna species.

Currently, the burnt areas of savanna are mapped annually at the end of the dry season in May by visual interpretation of Sentinel-2 optical imagery. This method requires cloud-free imagery, which is not always available. In addition, the timing is not optimal due to rapid savanna regrowth. Radar data, which can penetrate cloud, is not generally used to map burnt areas of savanna as few land managers have the required expertise to handle this data source.

Burn areas in Southern Belize
Burnt areas mapped from Sentinel-2 (left) compared to burn areas mapped using a time-series of Sentinel-1 indices
Step-in Sentinel-1 analysis ready data (ARD) from Environment Systems Data Services. The project investigated pairs of radar images before and after a fire. The physical basis for detecting burnt areas using radar relies on being able to observe changes in backscatter over time. With imagery captured from January to December 2019, object-based image analysis was used to compare radar- based methods with the visual analysis of Sentinel-2 imagery obtained for the nearest dates. The radar-based method detected 87.6 % of the burnt areas compared to the visual analysis, but was also able to reveal more about fire evolution over the season due to the increased frequency of the data capture, and its ability to see through the cloud.

Company News

Iain Cameron

Iain Cameron promotedIain who joined Environment Systems in 2011 has been promoted to Principal Consultant. With over ten years’ experience as an Earth observation (EO) scientist, Iain has expertise in all aspects of calibration, processing and analysis of a wide array of spatial and remote sensing data. Iain specialises in the processing and analysis of optical imagery from drone and satellite platforms, and is an expert in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) analysis for land and marine applications. He is the lead on EO research and development across the company with extensive skills in many GIS and development software products. Iain has a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, on using EO for mapping ecosystems.