Conservation: from space

We always say that our conservation projects are grounded in the latest science. But in the case of the Love Our Lakes project that’s not quite true. Read on to find out why we’ve blasted off from terra firma in an attempt to restore our precious wetlands ecosystems.

Animal and plant communities don’t like to stay put. They need to travel and spread – seeking out new sources of nutrition, shelter, and opportunities to breed. But in landscapes where the remaining natural habitat is patchy at best, moving around can be very difficult. That puts the animal and plant communities at serious risk. They might be able to stay in one place in the short-term, but if conditions become unfavourable they may dwindle and die out if we don’t restore and reconnect the remaining habitat.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research on a project called ‘functional wetland connectivity modelling – understanding wetlands pathways’.

As far as project titles go it’s a bit of a mouthful – but what it’s aiming to achieve is pretty simple. Together we want to build an accurate picture of all the remaining patches of wetland habitat across Victoria and assign them a score based on how important they are for the overall connectivity of wetlands in the landscape.

A wetland with a high connectivity score means that it is relatively easy for animals and plants to move from it to other wetlands compared with one that has a lower connectivity score. Understanding patterns of wetland connectivity can help identify where in the landscape protection or restoration will have knock-on benefits to other wetlands via the movement of plants and animals.

The tricky bit is coming up with those scores. There are all sorts of factors that can influence the connectivity value of a particular patch of habitat.

How do species move through the landscape to reach new habitat?

How do specific features of the landscape affect their movement?

One of the most important factors is water – and that’s where the space-age part of this project kicks in.

Gippsland Lakes satellite imageryGippsland Lakes satellite imagery

Water is the key to life in all landscapes, and that is never more true than for wetlands. But despite their name, water isn’t always present in wetlands. In Southern Australia, which experiences a Mediterranean climate, many wetlands fill in winter and dry in summer – and during drought even permanent wetlands are likely to be greatly reduced in size. These changes alter the availability of habitat and therefore patterns of wetland connectivity.

Getting an accurate picture of what’s happening to water in wetlands is pretty hard when you’re working across vast areas of land, and thinking about timescales in terms of decades rather than days. Luckily that’s where Geoscience Australia and their Water Observations from Space (WOfS) come into the picture.

WOfS was created to help understand where flooding may have occurred in the past as part of the National Flood Risk Information Project (NFRIP). Geoscience Australia have used their archive of satellite imagery from 1987 to the present to record surface water from space, across the whole of Australia. This is a unique and invaluable record of surface water in Australia’s landscapes, including Victoria’s wetlands.

With the data that Geoscience Australia have generated we’ll have a much clearer picture of how water availability in wetlands has changed over time. The scientists on the team are particularly excited about how the data could help with understanding of how patterns of wetland connectivity may change during periods of drought – which could be really useful when thinking how best to help native animals and plants in the region.

So there you have it. Satellites that are spinning around the globe can play a very important role in conserving the beautiful landscapes and incredible creatures we all love. Maybe next time you’re thinking about getting stuck into some habitat restoration you should leave your gumboots behind and don your space suit instead?

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Lakes in floodLakes in flood

The team will use Geoscience Australia’s data to build an accurate picture of changing water levels in the region:

Some of our teamSome of our team

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