NASA helps explore one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems

NASA’s satellite and airborne instruments are helping an international team study biodiversity on land and in the water around South Africa.

An international team of researchers spent October and November 2023 in the field, studying one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world – the Cape Floristic region of South Africa. As part of the effort, researchers have used NASA’s onboard and space-based instruments to gather additional data to better understand the unique aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in this region. Their findings will inform the possibilities of future satellite missions aimed at studying plants and animals.

“The food we eat, the clean water we drink and the air we breathe come from the diversity of life on planet Earth,” said Erin Hestir of the University of California, Merced, and the campaign’s lead water researcher. “As we lose species, we potentially lose Earth’s ability to support healthy human societies and provide healthy food and clean water for all.” Known as the Cape Biodiversity Survey (BioSCape), the effort is a major collaboration led in the US by NASA , the University at Buffalo in New York and the University of California, Merced. It is led in South Africa by the University of Cape Town and the South African Environmental Monitoring Network.

The Great Cape Floristic Region covers about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) in the southwestern tip of South Africa. Home to many plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth, the biodiversity hotspot has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The area also includes several UNESCO Biosphere Reserves to protect the unique terrestrial and aquatic environment.

The BioSCape team is testing how well aerial and satellite remote sensing can characterize terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity in the region. Space-based and aircraft-based instruments can cover more ground—and do it faster, as well as more often—than crews in the field. This has a wide range of practical applications, from mapping the presence of invasive plants to better understanding the drivers of harmful algal blooms.

A challenging area

“South Africa is a place of enormous biodiversity, but it is a very challenging environment in which to do remote sensing research,” said Annabelle Cardoso, manager of the BioSCape science team at the University of Buffalo and the University of Cape Town. “With so many plant and animal species packed into a relatively small area, using remote sensing tools to distinguish between species living in close proximity can be difficult.”

Three of the sensors on the BioSCape aircraft are imaging spectrometers that observe different wavelengths of visible and infrared light reflected or emitted by various materials on the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere. Each material has its own spectral fingerprint that allows researchers to tell what they are observing.

For example, the dominant vegetation in the Great Cape Floristic Region is a type of shrubland known as fynbos, which contains thousands of plant species. “We want to know if the spectral signatures of these closely related fynbos variations are different enough that we can distinguish them in the data,” said Kerry Coase-Nicholson, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

“Discriminating phytoplankton biodiversity in coastal and inland waters with imaging spectrometer data would advance the science of aquatic ecosystem dynamics,” said Leanne Guild, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. It will do this by offering new insights into land-water interactions, including river currents, runoff, sedimentation and algal blooms in coastal and inland waters that could impact food security.

Remote sensing capabilities like these will be vital for future satellites, such as the Surface Biology and Geology mission being planned for NASA’s Earth System Observatory.

A fuller picture

BioSCape teams have collected data on land and in water, with efforts including conducting surveys of plants and animals and taking DNA samples from the environment. Their findings will complement and help confirm information on the species collected by four of NASA’s onboard instruments and two of the agency’s space-based instruments.

Mounted on aircraft, the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer – Next Generation, the Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer, and the Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer are operated by JPL. Their detection of spectral fingerprints ranges from the ultraviolet part of the spectrum through the visible and into the infrared. Combined, their data provides information to help distinguish species and study water quality in reservoirs, among other things.

Operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the fourth airborne instrument is the Land, Vegetation, and Ice Sensor, which uses laser technology known as lidar to build a 3D representation of the Earth’s surface and vegetation. This data can provide information on vegetation structure – including the height of trees and plants and the inner layers of forests – as well as the topography of the ground below the tree cover. These data will also help calibrate and inform current and future space-based lidars, such as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation currently operating on the International Space Station and a potential mission to study surface topography and vegetation.

In addition, the BioSCape team used observations from two JPL-operated instruments on the space station. NASA’s ECOsystem Space Thermal Radiometric Experiment on the space station measures Earth’s surface temperature and can be used to assess plant stress due to temperature or water availability. The EMIT Imaging Spectrometer, short for Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, collects data on surface minerals, among other things, providing insight into the geology of the Greater Cape Floristic Region.

“One of the really exciting things is that when we combine spectroscopy and 3D structure, we can get a detailed biochemical and structural picture of the ecosystem,” said Adam Wilson of the University at Buffalo and one of the campaign’s lead investigators. This can help determine which plant species live in different environments, the presence of invasive plants, and how vegetation recovers after a wildfire.

The data collected by BioSCape has the potential for far-reaching research and applications, particularly for the people of South Africa. The project was developed in collaboration with several South African institutions, as well as national and provincial park systems, which plan to incorporate data and analysis from BioSCape into natural resource management.

To learn more about BioSCape, visit:

News Media Contacts

Jane J. Lee / Andrew Wang
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA.
818-354-0307 / 626-379-6874
[email protected] / [email protected]


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