The UPC joins the Planetary Health Alliance

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Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve

The UPC, through its Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB), is a new member of the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), a consortium that promotes the planet’s health. The LAB will contribute technology to monitor biodiversity and alert of potential threats from climate change and human pressure on natural habitats.

Dec 09, 2020

On 24 November, the Laboratory of Applied Bioacoustics (LAB) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) became a new member of the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), which currently has more than 240 members from around the world, including universities, non-governmental organisations, research institutes and government entities, that are committed to understanding and addressing global environmental change and its impact on health.

Human health depends on biodiversity. We can no longer ignore the disruptions of our natural environment caused by humans, nor can we ignore the impact that global environmental change has on our health, with diseases, heat-related mortality, mental health risks and poor nutrition increasingly affecting communities worldwide. These challenges provide opportunities for cross-disciplinary action. By joining the PHA, the LAB will contribute its technology to monitor biodiversity and alert of potential threats from climate change and human pressure on natural habitats to help safeguard our health and that of future generations. Being members of the PHA will strengthen the impact of UPC technologies in a worldwide network that includes the world’s top universities and research institutes. PHA members will be given access to the data and ecoacoustic indices that the LAB collects and that will permanently inform on the health of the ecosystems monitored. This process will allow communication channels to be established with PHA human-health experts, to alert them of the presence of invasive species that may carry new pathogens to adjacent human populations.

Tropical forests are rapidly disappearing from our planet as a result of deforestation caused by cattle ranching, logging, mining, oil extraction, agricultural expansion, the construction of roads and dams and the expansion of urban areas. Within the set of risk factors that compromise the conservation of marine biodiversity, one of the most critical is the noise produced by industrial offshore operations. Both processes, in the ocean and rainforests, are exacerbated by global warming and have resulted in a dramatic increase in the natural rate of species extinction and the consequent loss of biodiversity. Recent data suggests that this loss of biodiversity may lead to unprecedented exposure to new pathogens that could severely affect human health. The question is how to monitor these changes and alert experts of a potential threat, not only to biodiversity but to humans as well.

In tropical forests, remote sensing satellites and science aircraft provide a wealth of sample data on a global scale to track changes in forest cover and land use, but with relatively low spatial and temporal resolution and without the ability to monitor biodiversity under the vegetation cover; hence its usefulness at the level of scientific objectives for forest conservation is very limited. At the same time, in situ sampling of below-canopy biological activity on a large scale, using standard protocols and over long periods of time, remains logistically and financially prohibitive.

Pioneers in monitoring biodiversity
The Laboratory of Bioacoustic Applications (LAB) of the UPC and the Mamirauá Institute (Amazonas, Brazil) are pioneers in the way in which biodiversity in tropical forests is monitored through the application and deployment of a technology that is enabling the continuous acoustic monitoring of biodiversity, with the automated and real-time identification of more species than any other technology, wireless data transmission and low energy consumption, to be operational under a standard protocol during long periods of time without the need for maintenance. Each Providence node (as these sentinels of biodiversity are called) is self-contained and includes visual, acoustic and motion sensors, as well as an energy-harvesting power source, short- and long-range communication systems and the capacity to integrate other environmental sensors. For the first time, the Providence nodes integrate the recognition of species through audio and image techniques in a single unit and with the ability to monitor biodiversity of rain forests on unexplored scales through a network of nodes that allow the automatic construction of ecoacoustic indicators of their biological activity. These indicators are essential to detect human-nature conflicts before they become an issue either to biodiversity or to human health.

Bioacoustic approach
The marine environment has always had a vibrant soundscape of sounds produced by animals and physical processes. However, the last hundred years have seen the introduction of many anthropogenic sources that are currently contributing to the general noise budget of the oceans. In addition to noise, the recent worldwide development of renewable energy providers at sea (windmills and wave and tidal generators) has introduced new forms of underwater energy, which include electromagnetic fields whose effects on the marine ecosystems are unknown. The implications are less well understood than that of other global threats and, until recently, largely undetectable to anyone but experts. The UPC’s LAB proposes a transcendental shift in methodology and the exploration of new target marine organism sensitivity to address the magnitude of these increasing sources of pollution on the scale of ecosystems, thus anticipating the widespread use of novel technologies to assist in providing planetary health regulators with environmentally responsible impact indicators in the future.

Providing indicators of the conservation status of natural habitats is key to the health of the planet and hence to humans. The LAB hopes to raise awareness in current and future Planet Health Alliance members and to convince them that a bioacoustic approach is necessary to find sustainable solutions that combine human health interests and wildlife conservation. Communication is key in this aspect. The LAB’s technology enables anyone to monitor biodiversity wherever these sensors are deployed and alerts of potential threats to the natural balance of the region in question. Currently, it operates in most of the world’s oceans, as well as in the Amazon and Africa. The stream of data this network of sensors generates is probably the largest big data on biological sounds in the world that is currently available, and it is continuously growing.