Global study will check planet's health

Posted: 7 June 2001

A unique scientific undertaking, aimed at assessing the condition of the world's wildlife habitats and ecosystems, was unveiled on World Environment Day (5 June, 2001).

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) brings together an unprecedented network of scientists, experts, government bodies and environmental groups to plug important gaps in our knowledge on the true health of the planet's habitats.

The study should improve not only our understanding of the impacts that humans are having on the planet, but also provide remedies and chart ways in which the Earth's ecosystems can be saved and restored.

To assist in this endeavour, the UN Environment Programme, working with partners, will use a unique set of Landsat satellite images donated by NASA. The images, 16,000 in all, contain vital information on the changes which have occurred to coastal areas, countryside, mountains, wetlands, agriculture and urban sprawl since the Earth Summit in 1992.

Dan Claasen of UNEP said: "The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a four-year-project. One of our first tasks will be to find a common approach among the various scientific and other organizations on how to assess the health of ecosystems.

"One of the most difficult challenges will be the assessment of inaccessible coastal and deep ocean areas including coral reefs, mangrove swamps and the continental shelves. We hope the satellite data will play an important role in mapping the location and extent of such sites. This will allow us to identify areas where direct scientific assessments by people on the ground are urgently needed."

The assessment will build on the Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE) published in 2000 and produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, UNEP and the World Bank.

Angela Cropper of Stanford University and co-chair of the assessment panel of the $21 million project, said: "The pilot analysis shows that the driving forces behind rapid deterioration of the world's ecosystems are rapid population growth and increased consumption. We now want to expand this analysis and go deeper."