$10M in Prize Money for Mapping Rainforest Biodiversity
Drone image of the Mata Atlantica tropical rainforest in Brazil. FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images
Efforts to catalog the fast-declining biodiversity of tropical rainforests just got a $10 million boost via a new competition from XPRIZE, an organization that has more than a dozen competitions on topics ranging from spaceflight to oil cleanup over the past 25 years.
Last week, XPRIZE formally unveiled the $10 million Rainforest XPRIZE to catalyze development of "technology capable of identifying and cataloging rainforest biodiversity" that can underpin the emergence of new bioeconomy based on the value of standing forests as heathy and productive ecosystems.
Lowland rainforest in Indonesian Borneo as seen by drone. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
XPRIZE hopes the initiative will help address the perceived value gap between living and felled rainforest. At present, standing rainforest is generally viewed as less economically valuable than clearing the land for agriculture, timber or plantations, but many of the services afforded by healthy forests — from carbon sequestration to water provision to biodiversity — are unaccounted for.
"Despite their importance in supporting life on Earth, rainforests are undervalued because we simply do not yet know everything that exists in this ancient ecosystem," said Executive Director of the Rainforest XPRIZE Jyotika Virmani, in a statement. "I'm excited to see the innovative technologies that will emerge from this competition and give us a better assessment of the incredible biodiversity. Our goal is for the Rainforest XPRIZE to provide new understanding and reveal the true potential of the standing forest, allowing local communities to lead the way for all of us to live in harmony with these magnificent rainforests."
The winner will be selected based on a challenge:
- The winning team will survey biodiversity in at least three stories of a rainforest (emergent, canopy, understory and forest floor) in eight hours to produce the most comprehensive biodiversity assessment and utilize this and other data to produce the greatest number of insights in 48 hours. Insights may include, but are not limited to, new ecological dependencies, biodiversity and climate connectivity, anthropological findings or even sustainable societal interactions with the forest.
The competition offers a grand prize of $5 million, $2 million for second place and $1.25 million for two runners-up. There is a $500,000 bonus prize for technology that can rapidly identify previously undocumented species.
Topher White of Rainforest Connection installing a bioacoustic device in the forest canopy. Image by Ben Von Wong
Current efforts to survey rainforest biodiversity often employ a combination of technology — like camera traps, audio sensors and remote sensing from drones to airplanes to satellites — and old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground surveys. But these have been limited by the challenge of hot and humid conditions, dense canopy cover, remoteness and the sheer diversity of species of tropical rainforests, which may have upward of 400 types of trees per hectare. As such, XPRIZE expects the winning team in involve multiple technologies.
"The current methods used to identify and catalogue biodiversity, including in situ human-led studies, remote sensing by satellites or radar, or sophisticated spectroscopy, cannot operate to scale and gather the data necessary to understand the full ecosystem wealth of rainforests in sustainable ways. The competition accelerates a new bioeconomy, while also engaging indigenous and local communities, as well as local academic institutions in developing the solution. The Rainforest XPRIZE is a call-to-action to help save rainforests through the development and implementation of transformative, scalable and affordable technology," said XPRIZE in a press release.
A team led by Greg Asner from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (now at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science) developed a system for mapping tropical forests using a multispectral approach. The resulting laser-guided imaging spectrometer data are fully three-dimensional, providing the structure and architecture of the forest, while simultaneously capturing up to 23 chemical properties of the canopy foliage. These colors indicate the diversity of canopy traits among co-existing tree species in the same hectare. Image courtesy of Greg Asner, Carnegie Institution for Science
"The teams of the Rainforest XPRIZE will develop sophisticated technologies to inventory rainforest biodiversity faster, affordably and in unprecedented detail in challenging harsh environments, delivering insights to support the sustainable use and well-being of the standing forest. Interdisciplinary teams can use emerging technologies such as robotics, remote sensing, data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning to survey biodiversity, deal with the challenges of a harsh environment and demonstrate that these ecosystems are worth preserving."
The deadline for registration is June 30, 2020.
Diagram showing the timeline for the Rainforest XPRIZE.
XPRIZE's approach is based on the premise that prizes generate investment in an objective that far exceeds the value of the prize itself. One of the most prominent examples of the idea is the Orteig Prize, which put up a $25,000 prize in 1919 for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. Ultimately nine teams invested $400,000 in pursuit of the prize, which was captured in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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