A large number of historic Cold War-era spy satellite images were declassified decades ago. This valuable remote sensing data has been used by scientists in fields ranging from archeology to civil engineering. However, its use in ecology and conservation is limited. A new study led by Dr. Catalina Muntiano from the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Freiburg, Germany, aims to advance the non-categorical application of satellite data in the fields of environment and conservation. Taking advantage of recent advances in image processing and analysis, these globally available black-and-white images offer better insight into historical changes in ecosystems, species populations or changes in human impacts on the environment since the 1960s. It could, suggest the researchers.

Historical satellite images cover almost the entire globe in all seasons.

In their study, the researchers first examined the spatial, temporal, and seasonal coverage of more than one million declassified images from four historic U.S. spy satellite programs, showing that the data spans nearly the entire globe. and is available in all seasons. After reviewing how reconnaissance satellite images are used in environment-related fields, the team then identified potential future applications. Importantly, the wide spatial and temporal scale of satellite images can increase the understanding of environmental concepts such as baseline changes, lag effects, and legacy effects. This improved understanding can lead to better mapping of the historical extent and structure of ecosystems, helping to reconstruct past habitats and species distributions, as well as new insights into historical human impacts on current environmental conditions. can offer Going forward, this knowledge could also be helpful for conservation planning and ecosystem restoration efforts, for example by helping to identify meaningful ecological niches, the researchers suggest.

Challenges are to be overcome.

However, the use of reconnaissance satellite data in environmental research faces several challenges. The study highlights issues such as limited data access and sharing, high costs, the need for pre-processing and correction of images, and the absence of a consistent workflow within the scientific community. To address these challenges, researchers emphasize collaboration between data holders, remote sensing experts, and the environmental research community. “This piece is a call for interdisciplinary collaboration between ecologists, conservationists, and remote sensing experts to explore the full potential of these incredible datasets. Some of our previous studies have shown that over the past Without consideration, we can draw wrong conclusions about the current environment,” says Munteanu. In a 2020 study that drew international media attention, a research group led by the same scientists had already provided an example of how satellite images could be used in ecology to trace the causes of historical agricultural changes. can show an unexpected decline in the steppe marmot population. “To enable these scientific inquiries, we ask for the cooperation of data holders in releasing and pre-processing the data,” says Munteanu.