Tech Is Finally Learning How to Help Save the Planet

Scientists and engineers are building new tools — and a new way of thinking — to protect the natural world: Conservation technology is on the rise

“W“We’ve never seen this before,” Roland Knapp said from behind his head-mounted screen display. “There’s an aggregation of at least 300 tadpoles here, depth of four meters, temperature is four degrees Celsius.”

We couldn’t see what was on his screen. Our view was the vast, snow-covered expanse of backcountry Yosemite, but we could feel Knapp’s excitement. Ericka Hegeman, one of the researchers associated with the Mountain Lakes Research Group based at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL), busily took notes on everything Knapp said as he piloted his Sofar Trident underwater drone beneath the ice of the mountain lake buried before us, just starting to show signs of the spring thaw.

Conservationists are turning to emerging technologies to understand and intervene in the ecosystems they’re trying to monitor and protect, and vice versa.

Knapp, a research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team study the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog, which spends most of its life — nearly nine months of every year — trapped under the ice. The team had already made a handful of trips to the lake with the drone in recent years, but this was one of the first opportunities they had to gather video of the species in this environment. Any and all observations would be valuable for the conservation effort.

I was there for an entirely different reason: My company, Sofar Ocean Technologies, had spent the past few years designing and manufacturing the underwater drones Knapp was using, after a successful Kickstarter project brought the concept to life. Getting into the field with a team of users, especially in such an extreme environment, was a rare and valuable experience for product feedback. Mostly, though, I was there for inspiration. I knew that scientists and conservation groups were routinely using our tools to help inform and save species. I wanted to see it firsthand.

Over the past few years, thanks to SNARL, the outlook for the mountain yellow-legged frog has gone from grim to optimistic. During Knapp’s career, spanning more than 25 years, a series of major challenges have threatened the frogs’ existence, and consequently, the mountain lake ecosystem in which they live.

First came the fish. Stocking programs dumped millions of trout into naturally fishless alpine lakes like this one, often in dramatic fly-bys from airplanes, to improve the recreational fishing. These programs were eventually halted in some areas, including national parks, which allowed some lakes to revert to their natural fishless state. But then came the disease: Chytridiomycosis. Chytrid fungus is threatening entire branches on the tree of life, with estimates as high as 30% of all amphibian species affected and at risk. The mountain yellow-legged frog was no exception. But their story hasn’t ended there, thanks to Knapp and his team.

This particular location — unnamed and obscured for conservation purposes — is well off any path. Getting there requires a difficult hike over mountain passes and wading through running streams of spring runoff. When SNARL first started working here, they found only one old frog, a lone survivor of previous fish introductions and disease outbreaks. Now the population in this lake numbers in the hundreds. This location was the first chapter of an ambitious reintroduction program that brought healthy frogs in via backpacks or helicopter.

The way Hegeman describes the process makes it sound like an organ transplantation delivery — an intensely sensitive and urgent operation with high stakes and little room for error.

Monitoring the reintroduced populations is a challenge. Not only are the locations remote, but they’re underwater. Mix the altitude (more than 10,000 feet) with the long hike and it becomes wildly dangerous to scuba dive in these lakes.

Underwater drones — easily backpack-able and indifferent to the icy temperatures — have proved revolutionary. An evolving technological landscape has quickly changed the scope of research possibilities, making video streaming back to Knapp possible.

This particular experience is becoming commonplace: Conservationists are turning to emerging technologies to understand and intervene in the ecosystems they’re trying to monitor and protect, and vice versa. Technologists are approaching scientists and environmental challenges in hopes of making a positive contribution. That may seem obvious given the increasingly important role technology plays in all of our lives, but the field is reaching a significant new milestone. Just in time, a new 21st-century toolkit is becoming available for planet healing.

CConservation, at its core, is a philosophy: the idea and belief that humanity has a responsibility to protect and preserve the natural, biologically diverse world it inhabits. It has always evolved with the needs and culture it aspires to contain. As times change, so too must the ideas and techniques. Every few generations requires an affirmation of the tenets as well as a thoughtful re-examination of the practical applications.

The last big shift in perspective was arguably in 1978, with the creation of the field of modern conservation biology. A group of about 70 scientists had convened to discuss the changes that they had witnessed in their academic fields as well as the needs of a planet that had become firmly industrialized, connected, and headlong on a path to dramatic biodiversity loss. The most important outcome of the meeting was that the term “conservation biology” was clearly established in the academic lexicon. Suddenly the idea that hardcore science could be done with a conservation ethic became a codified professional discipline. It meant it would have its own scientific journal and conference, places to share the latest research and collaborate with others. It also opened the door to more direct funding. Perhaps most importantly, it became a career trajectory for thousands of young scientists. People finally had a way to articulate the ethical purpose and passion of their work. By normalizing the language and ideas, the field could advance at a faster rate.

The current moment calls for a similar semantic intervention. Conservation technology can and should follow the same accelerated trajectory that conservation biology took in the early ’80s. We need a new generation of practitioners to adopt the ethic, focus their energy, and apply their expertise in the spirit of defending the natural world. In other words, conservation needs a bigger team: The growing capabilities afforded by machine learning, robotics, and biotechnology are becoming dramatically more powerful and accessible at the same moment they are becoming more applicable and necessary.

More important than the tools themselves is the mode of thinking. Incorporating more of an engineering mindset into conservation will complement the scientific method. The differences are subtle and important. The scientific mind hypothesizes and experiments. The engineer prototypes and iterates. The output of science is knowledge, while the engineer’s aim is to solve a problem. Science debates and informs. Engineering builds and maintains. We need both — we need science in action.

Scientists are learning the hard way, by publishing reports and papers with dire results and no apparent real-world effect, that communicating results is not enough. There is a growing sense that publishing scientific papers about wildlife and wild places is just writing an obituary for the living world. Over the past few years, Hollywood has produced a slew of documentaries and well-produced stories to amplify the issues. It’s generated more awareness, but still not enough action. More needs to be done, and quickly.

Perhaps the biggest motivator of this new trend will be financial. More than ever before, resources for environmental protection are coming from the family foundations of technology entrepreneurs and executives. Outside magazine recently published a feature on the influence of the new benefactors to ocean science and exploration, citing Eric and Wendy Schmidt, Marc Benioff, and Ray Dalio among others. These funders are shying away from traditional models in favor of incubating new companies, initiatives, and tools.

The scale of their engagement is staggering. Jeff Bezos recently announced that he will be committing $10 billion to fight climate change and protect the natural world. For perspective, the total amount of annual philanthropic funding (in the United States) that goes toward environmental issues is less than $13 billion (which includes animal humane societies as well as zoo and aquaria fundraising). It’s no surprise that larger environmental NGOs like the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund are spinning up innovation labs and startup accelerators with little technical aptitude or experience. They’re following the money.

I’I’m optimistic about these colliding trends.

Even so, there are important concerns and clarifications worth addressing. The first: Conservation technology is not meant as a replacement for conservation biology, land conservation, legislation, policy work, or traditional or indigenous management techniques. These evolutionary jumps in the philosophy aren’t exclusive or competitive. They’re additive, bringing a new perspective and energy to the conversation. Formalizing conservation biology as a discipline didn’t discredit or diminish the work of those who created the first national parks and wilderness areas. It built on that foundation.

The second concern is the valid skepticism of technological solutionism. If we’ve learned any lesson during our brief time in this digital age, it’s that technology and technologists should not be blindly trusted. Too often, the focus on solving a problem creates a bigger mess than the one it aspires to clean. The importance of adopting a conservation ethic has less to do with finding silver bullet solutions and more to do with building infrastructure and creating agency. We need to inspire and enable everyone to take a role in the conservation process, especially in its ongoing maintenance.

An important aspect of this technological revolution has been the explosion in citizen science — the participation of nonprofessional scientists in the question-shaping and data-gathering process of discovery. The term’s broad definition was initially coined to describe the contributions of amateur astronomers and birders, but has evolved to encompass much of the scientific activity taking place outside the ivory tower of academia.

Technology is a big part of that story, with apps like iNaturalist and eBird enabling broad coordination and participation in biodiversity monitoring. There’s a citizen science project for nearly every issue you could imagine. The combination of conservation technology and citizen science offers an engaging new vision for environmental stewardship in the 21st century. It’s a million more Roland Knapps — people on the front lines with the tools, information, and confidence to bring ecological hope and balance to their corner of the world.

Lastly, it’s important to draw a distinction between conservation technology and the renewed enthusiasm around climate technology. Entrepreneurs and engineers are increasingly restless because they worry that their skills, time, and capital are going towards mundane and meaningless problems. They made their money (or not), and now they want to do more than find more efficient forms of ad-clicking — a shifting sentiment captured in Jason Jacob’s podcast My Climate Journey.

This group could do well to focus its attention on conservation, too. As outlined in the landmark Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report, the world is facing a dramatic decrease in biodiversity — up to one million species are facing the threat of extinction — and the challenges are multi-faceted. Climate change is part of the problem, but not the entire story. Changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms (like industrial fishing, illegal wildlife trading, etc.), pollution, and invasive alien species are also driving the loss.

Technologists (entrepreneurs, engineers, funders) have an important role to play. It’s not the only job that needs doing — avoiding a mass extinction event is going to take everyone: policymakers, business leadership, an active citizenry. But we’ll all be better off with an improved tool set.

AA Yosemite backcountry hike leaves plenty of time for small talk. With Knapp and his team, we covered everything from tips for preventing altitude sickness to the relative merits of our different hiking boots. More than any other topic, though, I probed Knapp on the challenges facing his work. I was interested in getting an honest account of the barriers keeping him from his big vision: a healthy Sierra Nevada ecosystem, with the full complement of frogs and other native species, and the resources to pursue the research most important to their continued survival.

I was attuned for a specific reason: I was pattern matching. Knapp was one of nearly 500 researchers and conservationists who we’ve supported through our non-profit SEE Initiative, a program we created to send grant-funded Trident underwater drones to the under-resourced front lines of science. We learned that they could make a dramatic impact on the work of the scientists and activists working on important ocean and marine conservation issues. They were grateful to get the drones, which often made the difference between their research being possible or not.

Science and engineering are on a collision course.

It also afforded exciting new opportunities for engaging local communities in the work. The philanthropic funders were excited their support was able to touch a large number of end users. And, of course, we were happy that our drones were being used — on a larger scale than we imagined — for all the same scientific, environmental, and educational reasons that we had dreamed possible when we began. I’ve been calling this type of outcome a “conservation dividend,” a new term to serve as a prism for how to view this broader trend and how to think about getting involved yourself.

Conservation dividends are the by-products of work or technology that protect and enhance biodiversity and bioabundance. They vary widely and can be both personal or organizational. The best illustration I know is the career trajectory of Shah Selbe. He was building satellites as an engineer for Boeing, his first job out of college, but his heart wasn’t in it. He began a side project to apply his skills toward monitoring marine protected areas, using drones and satellite imagery to fill gaps in data and enable effective enforcement. He called the open source project SoarOcean, and his efforts became one of the first instances of drones used for conservation purposes. That project eventually ran its course, but Selbe was already well down the path of becoming a full-time conservation technologist. Now, after years of running deployments in protected areas around the world, he helms a project called FieldKit, which aims to build a low-cost sensor suite that will be easy enough for nonexperts to set up and maintain.

It’s easier than ever to replicate Selbe’s model. The on-ramps to meaningful conservation work are simple to find. There are communities like the Conservation X Labs Digital Maker Space or Wildlabs where new needs and ideas are shared and forums welcome newcomers. Participation doesn’t require the total commitment that Selbe has given — keeping involvement to a side project is fine. Amateurs, non-engineers, and hobbyists are welcome. Regardless of your level of formal training, if you’re a curious and concerned person, there’s never been a better time to get involved.

The opportunity to create a positive conservation dividend as an organization is even more dramatic. Until now, companies that have meaningful impacts on conservation outcomes have been important and effective, but they’ve also been haphazard and rare. A good example is Global Fishing Watch, used to monitor illegal fishing activity around the world. It was a result of a collaboration between Google and the NGOs Oceana and Skytruth, with funding from a network of philanthropic partners. A good deal of effort was required to get this project off the ground because it was unconventional. Now we’re starting to see companies of all stages and sizes take this seriously.

Companies are moving beyond serendipity by forcing conservation dividends into their business models and corporate org charts. On the startup side, Conservation X Labs is spinning out projects like their DNA Barcode Scanner as a stand-alone company to grow commercially in support of their mission to end human-induced extinction. Better Place Forests is reclaiming and preserving forest ecosystems around the country by offering a new vision and product for memorials. The big tech companies are getting more involved, too. Microsoft has appointed a Chief Environmental Officer to oversee its bold AI for Earth initiative. Planet, in collaboration with Vulcan, is creating a new global monitoring system for coral reefs and rainforests. The list of companies moving from accidental to intentional impact is long and growing. These efforts are beyond the corporate sustainability efforts we’ve seen in the past, like reducing packaging waste or moving operations to run on renewable energy. This new trend is about creating solutions and outcomes. It’s not just about being less bad. It’s an effort to do sustained good.

WWhat’s next for Knapp and his research is a good indicator of where these trends are headed. Thanks to the team’s hard work, the frog population is recovering. Next, they plan to use gene sequencing to understand why the mountain yellow-legged frog and a few other amphibians evolved some resistance to the chytrid fungus.

The team has partnered with geneticists at the University of California, Berkeley to understand what, if any, adaptations may be causing the resistance. The ability to undertake and afford this type of genetic inquiry is recent, owing to the rapidly falling costs of sequencing. If a discovery is made, conversations will quickly move toward if and how to apply this knowledge. As amphibians continue their record die-offs around the globe, these questions will become central. Science and engineering are on a collision course.

One prescient group is already helping to shape the future of ecological interventions. With their Catalyst Science Fund, the non-profit Revive & Restore supports several basic science projects that will help make engineered conservation possible. They’re not doing this in a vacuum, either. Since 2012, they’ve convened meetings among leading scientists to build the foundational principles for the use of biotechnology in a conservation setting. The citizen science apps and the robots are just the warm-up act.

Ultimately, the most important factor in the scale, scope, and efficacy of conservation technology will be how many new minds we get participating. The challenges are immense and the front-line leaders, like Knapp, need reinforcements.

Entrepreneur and writer working at the intersection of science, conservation, and technology.

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