Use of Remote Sensing Data for the Monitoring of World Heritage Sites

Remote sensing is increasingly becoming ‘old’ technology that’s no longer a concept but something very tangible and accessible by everyone. This is in part thanks to the plethora of applications that make use of satellite images to tell us where things are, what they are and how they change over time.

There is no question that remote sensing is powerful and has massive potential in helping us understand how nature is changing. Harnessing this technology can help us improve conservation work. IUCN has set out to do this in its assessment of the conservation outlook of natural World Heritage sites.

IUCN, the official Advisory Body on nature under the World Heritage Convention, is a pioneer in piloting new technology for better conservation and monitoring of natural World Heritage sites. Under the recent project, a Brighter Outlook for World Heritage funded by the MAVA Foundation, IUCN’s World Heritage Programme is attempting to test the capability and feasibility of remote sensing in increasing the scope and coverage of site monitoring, while making it more timely, proactive, holistic and scientifically rigorous.

One such attempt is to look at land cover change over time. Land cover change is an objective observation of change in different types of lands (so-called land cover classes) – for instance, forests, watersheds, or grass fields – regardless of how these are used. It reflects the dynamics of natural ecosystems and the impact of human disturbance. This can be a very useful indicator, for example to identify abnormal change in the types and compositions of vegetation, which can help determine if action is necessary. Gathering such information is often difficult, inaccurate and expensive at a large scale when using traditional surveying techniques.

Although the list of natural World Heritage sites stands  at 229 (very few compared to the 200,000-plus protected areas worldwide), these sites spread across large, complex landscapes, covering 7% of the total expanse of terrestrial protected areas, which means they have an important global footprint. Their vastly different characteristics and the need to monitor them continuously mean that any solution based on remote sensing must consider scalability and repeatability.


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