Observing Life on Earth from Space

Photo by Alenka Skvarc on Unsplash

Earth observation from space plays a crucial role in biodiversity conservation, and in future, this role might even increase. 

The stability of ecosystems around the world is under threat. The extinction of species and the loss of biodiversity is a global ecological challenge alongside climate change. Earth observation from space plays a crucial role in biodiversity conservation, and in future, this role might even increase. Earth observation satellites capture data on various environmental variables, such as vegetation indices, temperature, precipitation, and elevation, which are closely linked to biodiversity patterns. By analyzing these data layers in conjunction with species occurrence records, conservationists can create detailed biodiversity maps to identify biodiversity hotspots, areas of high conservation value, and regions in need of protection.

Technologies have been developed, that provide data on where animals are, and how they move, Thomas Kiggell of Wageningen University describes: “With technological advances and costs becoming more accessible, the use of these emergent technologies has become viable and is now commonplace in biodiversity conservation. As an example, whereas earlier radio-collars used for tracking animal movement were heavier and bulkier, collars available now are more compact and satellite-based” (Kiggell, 2021).

The use of satellite-based Earth observation and remote sensing makes life on Earth measurable. Observing and measuring life is an important component in the monitoring of biodiversity loss and thus can contribute to biodiversity conservation. However, there is an ongoing critical debate among biologists and conservationists as to whether the move towards “data-centric” or “data-intensive” science shows a shift in conservation science. The huge amounts of data available mean that scientific research is focusing more on “identifying patterns” than in the past (Benson, 2010; 2016).

Earth observation data can change the way biologists perceive nature. EO data can give an idea of what sort of terrain specific animals prefer, and what territory they occupy. “Advancements in the quantity and quality of data collection greatly refine the biopolitical gaze on nature, also supporting conservation actors to make claims for new protected areas” (Kiggell, 2021). The winning projects of the Satellites for Biodiversity Award, for example, show how satellite data is used in projects to protect biodiversity. It is awarded annually by the Airbus Foundation together with the Connected Conservation Foundation.

The European Union’s Innovation and Research Program Horizon, which is co-financing the Domino-E project, is also funding projects that combine biodiversity and data from space. In line with the European Green Deal, EU climate policy, and the EU biodiversity strategy, Europe supports research-based and evidence-based conservation and management approaches that apply an understanding of the structure, function, and dynamics of natural and sustainably managed forest ecosystems to achieve integrated environmental, economic, and social outcomes.

Domino-E will contribute to the availability of satellite images by optimizing existing Earth observation technologies, which will also benefit projects in the field of monitoring biodiversity on Earth.


Kiggell, T., 2021: Monitoring extinction: defaunation, technology and the biopolitics of conservation in the Atlantic Forest, Brazil. In: Journal of Polical Ecology Volume 28, Issue 1: 845–863.

Benson, E. S., 2016: Trackable life: data, sequence, and organism in movement ecology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 57: 137-147.

Benson, E. S., 2010: Wired wilderness: technologies of tracking and the making of modern wildlife. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.