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January 7, 2020

Using Big Data to Count Whales from Space

Oliver Peckham

Many whale species have been critically endangered for decades, but identifying and tracking whale populations is tricky business – which means that protecting those populations is a tricky business, too. Now, a new initiative from Draper Laboratory (a Massachusetts-based engineering organization) and the New England Aquarium aims to tackle that task by using big data. 

Announced at the 2019 Our Ocean Conference, an annual conference of governments and conservationists with a focus on actionable commitments, the aptly named “Counting Whales From Space” initiative aims to… well, do just that. Unlike current whale population measurement, which is typically done by expensive, range-limited aerial surveys with small aircraft, the initiative is employing a “multi-sensor fusion approach.” In essence, they will combine data from sources such as satellites and radar with data about currents, topography and weather in order to “gain insights beyond standard application of remote sensing.”

John Irvine, chief scientist for data analytics, explained what kind of questions this might answer in an interview with AP. “If whales are moving out of one area and into another, what’s the reason for that? Is it due to ocean warming? Is it changes in commercial shipping lanes? These are all questions we’ll be able to start answering once we have the data.” The Aquarium also highlighted how some of the most pressing need for this kind of whale monitoring is just offshore, about 200 miles east of Cape Cod.

The Aquarium hopes that this new initiative will help to make the case for expanding or creating marine protected areas (MPAs), a conservation designation for ecologically important oceanic areas. “We know that marine protected areas are a very effective tool to bolster the ocean’s resilience in the face of climate change and other human impacts,” said Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of the New England Aquarium. Currently, less than 10 percent of the world’s oceanic area is considered “highly protected,” but many in the scientific community (including the New England Aquarium) are aiming to help increase that share to 30 percent by 2030. 

In a press release, the Aquarium highlighted that the Counting Whales From Space initiative represents the first commitment at the Our Ocean Conference for both Draper Laboratory and the Aquarium. “This partnership combines the best conservation science with cutting-edge technology, so we can more effectively protect our planet’s greatest resource,” Spruill said. The partners plan to fund the project through charitable contributions, trusts and grants as the program develops over several years – and they’ve already collected $1 million.

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