Sphere Spring 2021

Sphere Newsletter Spring 2021


In this issue of Sphere we are focusing on natural capital and more specifically on our SENCE (Spatial Evidence for Natural Capital Evaluation) technology. The time could not be more prescient with the recent publication of the Dasgupta Review. Commissioned by
the UK Treasury the central message of the Review is one that will be familiar to many. Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on nature, and the accelerating collapse of the natural world is fuelling extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies, our livelihoods, health and well-being. Without an understanding of, and methods for, evaluating our natural capital we cannot move forward with the necessary policies and actions required to protect and invest in our natural world. SENCE was designed to do just that.


Natural Capital in Context
The Role of SENCE
SENCE for Policy Advisors
SENCE for Estate Managers
SENCE for Supply Chain Managers
Data Dashboards
Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space
Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize – the case for analysis ready data (ARD)

Company News

Iain Cameron

Natural Capital in Context

The recently published Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK Treasury was expertly timed to set the policy making agenda in advance of the UK’s hosting of the COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November 2021. It is clear that in the post-pandemic world the environment will be moving centre stage.

Across the UK where policy making for agriculture and the environment are devolved, we can already see a different approach. In England, the forthcoming Environment Bill introduces a mandatory requirement for biodiversity net gain into the planning system. This will ensure that new developments enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces for local communities to enjoy. The aim is that, by integrating biodiversity net gain into the planning system there will be a step change in how planning and development is delivered. The bill will provide new opportunities for innovation as well as stimulating new economic markets. This is expected to result in the creation, and the avoidance of loss, of several thousands of hectares of habitat for wildlife each year, which represents annual natural capital benefits of around £1.4 billion. This will increase the public benefits of ecosystems, such as improvements in air quality, water flow control, outdoor recreation and physical activity.

In Wales, the Environment Bill, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and the new National Development Framework ‘Future Wales’, are putting the environment at the heart of place-based decision making. Environment Systems continues to be a key provider of information and consultancy helping Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Local Authorities to understand their environment and green infrastructure in their evidence based decision-making.

Future Wales Natural Capital Map
Future Wales – The National Plan 2040 – Natural Capital map produced with help from Environment Systems

In Scotland, the Government and NatureScot are working towards Natural Capital Accounts and implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy. Scotland has been on a path since the commencement of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. Under this act all public bodies in Scotland have had a statutory duty to further the conservation of biodiversity. In 2020, the Scottish Government report, Scottish Natural Capital Accounts, published the value of Scottish Natural Capital. The Scottish Government has also updated its 2018 Climate Change Plan.

Across the world there are many other initiatives focused on natural capital evaluation and new systems of inducement in the form of credits, which are intimately linked with the move towards ‘Net Zero’ which we will be focusing on in the next issue of Sphere.

The world is beginning to realise that every ecosystem is vulnerable and unique, and there needs to be a universally shared understanding of how these systems work, and how those that have been damaged can be brought back to health. The Dasgupta Review explains how we have come to create these problems and the actions we must take to solve them. It then provides a roadmap for navigating towards the restoration of our planet’s biodiversity in an economic context. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern agriculture which enables us to produce food at rates per hectare unthinkable in the past, but at the cost of biodiversity.

The Role of SENCE

It is difficult to even talk about ecosystems unless you can understand how they work, what they consist of and what state they are in. An assessment of natural capital is rising to the top of the agenda and is likely to be one of the most important elements of decision making on farms, estates, regions, and indeed, whole countries, to underpin future sustainable land management policy. Without the tools necessary to assess and evaluate the natural capital inherent in our land, the risks to biodiversity and the opportunities to bring them back to health, the emerging systems of credits, offsetting and achieving balance cannot operate. This is where SENCE – (Spatial Evidence for Natural Capital Evaluation) has an important role to play. Developed over eight years, SENCE is a suite of tools which utilise the latest satellite Earth observation data, existing data, analytics and modelling.

How does it work?

SENCE provides the evidence to show where the environment is healthy and working well. It reveals where there are risks for example, by identifying which land is particularly susceptible to soil erosion, flooding or coastal retreat. SENCE also shows where the best places are to site new activities and developments that enhance natural capital, such as planting schemes.

What can SENCE deliver?

SENCE can be delivered at scales of 400 ha and up to whole countries. This brings SENCE into the mainstream as a direct response to the new initiatives and systems of credits. Now, through an interactive web-based dashboard or digital maps and reports, a policy advisor, investor, supply chain manager or an estate manager can understand the value of the land. This together with the risks to habitats, the possibilities and the opportunities and indeed the economic potential that can accrue from sustainable land management. Using existing data, satellite imagery and highly developed modelling techniques, SENCE can provide an up-to-date status of habitats and land use with detailed information on:

  • Carbon: Sequestration & storage
  • Water regulation: Natural flood management
  • Water quality: How the land is supporting or reducing water quality
  • Agriculture: Field productivity – in near real-time
  • Risk of soil erosion: Showing those areas most likely to be affected
  • Biodiversity risk: Woodland, grassland & wetland networks and protected areas such as SSSIs
  • Ecological networks: These show where organisms can move within and between different habitats preventing each population becoming isolated which helps increase resilience
  • Biodiversity net gain: Woodland, wetland, upland & grassland enhancement
SENCE for Policy Advisors

On many projects, SENCE has been used to inform policy. In Wales, for example, Environment Systems was involved in Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) SoNaRR (State of Natural Resources Report) initiative. SoNaRR set out to be the first country-wide assessment of the health and resilience of ecosystems, and the first assessment of the extent to which Wales was sustainably managing its natural resources. SoNaRR confirmed the link between natural resources and the seven well-being goals set out in the ‘Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.’

Based on the evidence in SoNaRR, Welsh Ministers set out their priorities for policy, and since then, Environment Systems has been working on the next stages, developing the evidence for Area Statements to put these policies into action. We have delivered detailed maps, technical insight, plus user guides, to enable planners and other professionals to make well-informed choices and deliver true sustainable management of natural resources. Woodland Planting is a good example. The Welsh Government has set a target to increase woodland cover by 100,000 ha by 2030. Whilst woodland planting is not always popular with the public there are many places where there is a double benefit such as river catchments. Here planting can be introduced as part of natural flood management. This increases the water storage capacity of the soil and slows the flow of water downstream.

West of England Nature Partnership
West of England Nature Partnership – Woodland opportunities identified to strengthen the woodland network
SENCE was also used to assess the state of the environment in the West of England, for the West of England Nature Partnership. Taking an ecosystem service approach, Environment Systems helped to develop a series of 14 ecosystem service and ecological network maps.
It’s not just in the countryside where natural habitats and green space, such as broadleaved woodland, can play a key role. SENCE has been used by many Local Authorities in Wales as part of Green Infrastructure mapping which highlights the multiple benefits of current green spaces in towns and cities. SENCE is also used to map opportunities to enhance these areas to deliver more, and different, services. Using SENCE, Environment Systems has helped Local Authorities begin to introduce these key concepts into the Local Planning Process.
Roadside green infrastructure
An opportunity map for roadside green infrastructure to enhance air quality
One of the key features of SENCE is that it can be applied almost anywhere in the world and it is completely scalable. In the Caribbean, we have been working with British Overseas Territory governments to assess the risks posed by storm surge and flooding, a direct response to the increased number of extreme hurricane events. SENCE was used to create storm surge risk models, both to inform policy and to identify areas for action to be taken. The models also inform natural capital accounting by placing a monetary value on natural assets that stimulate tourism, for example.

The maps can be viewed online here.

SENCE for Estate Managers

Providing land managers with the wherewithal to fully understand natural capital on their estates, how their land operates and the value locked into their habitats will enable them to get ahead of
the game, and be fully prepared for the natural capital revolution. As we start the journey to ‘Net Zero’, SENCE will be helping the custodians of the land achieve the balance that this target requires.

During 2021, Environment Systems will launch SENCE Estates (see dashboard on previous page) plus follow-on consultancy packages to help land managers make the most of the opportunities their land offers. Imagine you manage a large estate with a wide range of different land use. There will be carbon locked into that land, specific biodiversity and different habitats. In the past, agricultural subsidies may well have determined how the land was managed, but now your natural capital is going to be at the forefront of your decision making, and not least your financial planning.

SENCE for Supply Chain Managers

A global farming and food business working thousands of acres, and employing thousands of people around the world to grow, process, pack and market a range of fresh produce, has to understand and closely manage its supply chain. What happens if the crop is late or that there is a drought, flooding or some other extreme weather event? Supply chain managers have to be able to understand and monitor what is happening, increasingly in as close to real-time as possible to ensure supply chain continuity.

Colombia Mapper
Habitat map of Colombia, one of several Natural Capital maps created by Environment Systems

In Colombia, we have been working with grower organisations to demonstrate how the adoption of a natural capital approach to land management can increase ecosystem resilience, and with that, secure their production against extreme weather events. By modelling existing natural capital, and opportunities to enhance it, together with providing advice on management actions that utilise practical, nature-based solutions, we are opening up new opportunities which were previously unheard of.

Data Dashboards

With an ever-increasing supply of valuable data, there has been a rise in demand for a high-quality means of presenting information to customers, staff, and stakeholders, in a way that is quick and easy to interpret. Dashboards have become an effective way to present data in an accessible and user-friendly manner. They can be a great tool for businesses, government and NGOs alike.

There are several key elements to a dashboard. Most importantly, the information on a dashboard should be presented so that it is easy to understand. All the information needed to make decisions should be on a single screen, facilitating quick and easy interpretation. The dashboard should be interactive to get the full potential from the information being presented, so that users can drill down into the detail if required with a simple click. Dashboards should also be flexible enough to cover as many user requirements as possible, and easy to deploy. The latest web technologies are making this possible.

The data presented within a dashboard can be used for operational decision making; allowing staff to understand events, projects, or assets, by monitoring their status in near real-time. Dashboards can also present data for strategic decision making, where an organisation can track key performance indicators (KPI), and market data.

Data sources can be varied, such as Internet of Things (IoT), market intelligence providers, app-based data collection etc. Environment Systems Data Services can directly feed into such dashboards with the use of our API connectors. These provide the dashboard with a near real-time supply of satellite-derived metrics, which can be presented, and interact with, other key information on the dashboard.

In summary, dashboards provide particular information that an organisation needs in order to run effectively and efficiently presented in easy-to- read graphics and charts.

This will secure the UK aquaculture and food supply chain while producing a high-value, highly-nutritional and sustainable food. The ultra-low carbon footprint food, powered by wind, will increase overall efficiency of the system and develop satellite, Internet of Things and sensor-based UK intellectual capital for export to producers worldwide.

We have co-developed with our partner Triage a SENCE dashboard. This is shown below with a number of different data views.

Web-based Dashboard
Summary tab provides a good holistic overview bringing all of the data together into a single management dashboard. The different tabs display different data views. The maps can even display the quantity of tons of stored carbon and its value based on the current carbon price. The dashboard can also display carbon sequestration over time, and provide ‘what-if’ scenarios for changing one land use to another.
  • Agriculture
    This map shows the vegetation productivity (NDVI) for each field which is automatically updated
  • Grassland networks
    Existing biodiversity, in this case the natural grassland network
  • Woodland and wetland networks
    View indicating the woodland and wetland networks
  • SENCE Carbon
    This view indicates the relative amount of carbon likely to be stored both above and below ground at a field/ parcel scale
  • Woodland planting opportunities
    View shows opportunities for woodland planting which are likely to deliver natural flood management benefits and ranks fields according to their relative value
  • Wildlife network corridors
    Wildlife network corridors
  • SENCE Home
    The home screen provides the introduction to the dashboard and the comprehensive list of data views available
  • Vegetation helps to store and slow water flow
    View showing the way that vegetation is helping to slow and store water

Mapping Risk to Water Quality from Space

A large amount of the water we drink comes from rivers and reservoirs. Although this water passes through complex treatment processes to make it safe to drink, the time, effort and cost of these processes depends on the quality of the raw water.

Human activities, in particular farming, can affect water quality by increasing the risk of soil mobilisation. For example, when arable land is tilled, soil is exposed. These bare soil fields present a higher risk of both erosion and diffuse pollution when compared to land which has vegetation cover.

We have been working with Anglian Water to identify areas of bare soil and model the risk they present to water quality. This negates the need for extensive and costly ground surveys supporting better management of resources and providing evidence for mitigation activities at farm scale such as planting buffer strips, growing cover crops or moving gateways.

Heigham catchment
Fields measured and modelled track well over time
A large portion of the region Anglian Water manages is used for large scale commercial agriculture. As a result, fields of bare soil
are common throughout the year. However, some bare fields will present more of a risk to water quality than others. The factors that influence risk include:

  • Distance/proximity to river network:Bare fields in close proximity to a river network present a higher risk than fields further away because the soil has less distance to travel before it reaches the river.
  • Slope: Bare fields that drain more steeply present a greater risk of soil erosion since they have a higher risk of soil mobilisation.
  • Soil type: Fields found in areas where the soil type is more vulnerable to mobilisation will present a higher risk of soil erosion if bare.
  • Vegetation: The vegetation found both within a field and between a field and the river network will affect the risk to water quality. Vegetation protects soil from erosion by preventing direct impact from rainfall, slowing down overland flow (reducing its erosive power), trapping sediment and stabilising the soil profile via the root network. Fields that have lots of vegetation between them and the river network are of a lower risk.

We are using Environment Systems Data Services and our Earth observation analytics to model water quality risk in near real-time for the Heigham catchment in Norfolk. This information is delivered to Anglian Water in the form of an interactive Business Intelligence Dashboard, which supports analysis via the visual representation of often very complex data. The dashboard has proved a success and we are currently working with Anglian Water to roll it out to other catchments.

Mapping Wildfires in Southern Belize – the case for analysis ready data (ARD)

Savanna based ecosystems across the world are suffering increasingly from wildfires due to climate change and illegal human activities. In many regions, this puts the fragile ecosystems under threat, so mapping the extent of wildfires becomes important to enable the organisation of mitigation measures.

Recently, Environment Systems supported a Masters student from the University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences, Chris Halliday, in a project that sought to investigate a new approach to mapping savannas. An 1,800 km2 area of Southern Belize was chosen as the area of study. The area was chosen because it suffers from extensive wildfires, which destroy saplings, the habitats of nesting birds, and cause a general decline in biodiversity. Three ‘Protected Areas’ within this area are designated to protect key savanna species.

Currently, the burnt areas of savanna are mapped annually at the end of the dry season in May by visual interpretation of Sentinel-2 optical imagery. This method requires cloud-free imagery, which is not always available. In addition, the timing is not optimal due to rapid savanna regrowth. Radar data, which can penetrate cloud, is not generally used to map burnt areas of savanna as few land managers have the required expertise to handle this data source.

Burn areas in Southern Belize
Burnt areas mapped from Sentinel-2 (left) compared to burn areas mapped using a time-series of Sentinel-1 indices
Step-in Sentinel-1 analysis ready data (ARD) from Environment Systems Data Services. The project investigated pairs of radar images before and after a fire. The physical basis for detecting burnt areas using radar relies on being able to observe changes in backscatter over time. With imagery captured from January to December 2019, object-based image analysis was used to compare radar- based methods with the visual analysis of Sentinel-2 imagery obtained for the nearest dates. The radar-based method detected 87.6 % of the burnt areas compared to the visual analysis, but was also able to reveal more about fire evolution over the season due to the increased frequency of the data capture, and its ability to see through the cloud.

Company News

Iain Cameron

Iain Cameron promotedIain who joined Environment Systems in 2011 has been promoted to Principal Consultant. With over ten years’ experience as an Earth observation (EO) scientist, Iain has expertise in all aspects of calibration, processing and analysis of a wide array of spatial and remote sensing data. Iain specialises in the processing and analysis of optical imagery from drone and satellite platforms, and is an expert in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) analysis for land and marine applications. He is the lead on EO research and development across the company with extensive skills in many GIS and development software products. Iain has a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, on using EO for mapping ecosystems.