How Space Intelligence is helping to restore the world’s peatlands

The world’s peatlands are a natural carbon sink, playing a critical role in global climate regulation. The UK government has awarded £60,000 funding to an Edinburgh startup, Space Intelligence, to carry out work to help reverse the damage caused by humans to peatlands around the world and reduce the rate of climate change.

Why peatlands are important

Peatlands are wet, boggy environments that are rich in carbon from partly degraded organic material and cover roughly 10% of the UK landmass (and about 3% of the world’s). When peatlands are degraded (normally through human interventions such as agriculture or the creation of drainage ditches) they dry out and the carbon stored in them is released into the atmosphere.

This is a huge potential problem as the volumes of carbon stored in them are enormous. And without proper interventions to protect and restore them, it could make the mission to combat climate change and for the UK to reach its zero-emission goals even harder.

It's said that 'peatlands store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests' (UN environment programme). In the UK alone, up to 80% of these peatlands have been degraded, meaning significant amounts of carbon have already been released from this store.

The peatlands challenge and what can be done

Although peatlands cover such a large proportion of the UK landmass, it's difficult to pinpoint the most damaging and polluting peatlands and not much is known about them. Therefore, work needs to be carried out to identify those peatlands that require the most immediate and greatest attention.

Space Intelligence Ltd. is an Edinburgh-based satellite data analysis company that uses big satellite datasets to develop intelligence and insights that can be actioned upon by governments and companies alike.

Space Intelligence will work with NatureScot, the Scottish Government body tasked with valuing and improving Scotland’s natural environments, to identify and track satellite maps of where the degraded peatlands are. It will then analyse them to identify peatland that is in poor condition but could be restored in a cost-effective manner.

"Peat soils contain around a third of the carbon locked up on the Earth’s surface but take up less than 3% of land cover globally, so protecting and restoring them will have an outsized impact on the climate. Looked at another way, if we do not protect and restore peatland, we have no hope of preventing dangerous climate change."

Professor Ed Mitchard, Chief Scientific Officer, Space Intelligence

Dr Murray Collins and Ed Mitchard of Space Intelligence in the peatlands of Scotland - Image credit: Kirsty Laughlin

Dr Murray Collins and Professor Ed Mitchard of Space Intelligence pictured in the Scottish peatlands. Photo credit: Kirsty Lauchlin

“The team is very excited to be developing this cutting edge project, we’re applying advanced satellite analysis to land management and the result is a huge step forward in tackling the climate emergency."

Dr Murray Collins, CEO, Space Intelligence

The future for global environmental monitoring

The £60,000 funding, awarded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and delivered by Innovate UK, follows the extra £100,000 funding for Space Intelligence to progress its technology to Phase 2 of the 'AI for Good Challenge' delivered by Scottish Enterprise via the Scottish Government's CAN DO Innovation Challenge Fund.

The funding has supported further growth of the team in Edinburgh and the scale-up of mapping to cover the whole of mainland Scotland. The project will ultimately provide a high-resolution picture for the first time of how Scotland’s landmass is changing and how this will impact upon our natural capital. It will also enhance Scotland’s position at the forefront of advanced satellite mapping and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Scotland's Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, said:

"It’s great to see the CAN DO Innovation Challenge Fund support companies like Space Intelligence that are using AI to help find innovative, digital-driven solutions to help address the global climate emergency. I look forward to following the progress of this satellite imaging and mapping work as it moves to the next phase."

Should the current Scotland peatlands project be a success, the academics leading the company have ambitious plans to shift to monitoring global peat reserves.

The funding provided by UKRI also provides the opportunity for future funding whereby if successful, up to £3 million would become available. This would be to support the development of new peatland monitoring products or tools for other UK or international markets and if required, potentially launch new nanosatellites to gather global peatland data from space.

"Space Intelligence is growing rapidly by providing high-value data analytics to clients in the environmental sector, and we are pleased to be able to take a leading role in ensuring a green recovery from Covid-19, creating high-quality jobs as part of the UK’s bounce back."

Dr Murray Collins, Chief Executive Officer of Space Intelligence

Space Intelligence Kate Forbes visit

Pictured: Scotland's Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes (centred) on a visit to Space Intelligence early 2020.

Climate change benefits – building back stronger

With governments around the world looking at how they might "build back stronger" following the looming Covid-19 jobs crisis and increasingly obvious climate emergency, this project seems to be a double-tick opportunity to address both these issues.

Helping towards net zero targets

Firstly, it should act as a means by which the UK’s peatlands can be identified and targeted for rewetting and ultimately restarting the carbon sequestration process. This would contribute to the achievement of net zero carbon emission goals by the Scottish and UK governments and help row back on some of the damage already caused to peatlands.

Restoring peatlands would also likely have the benefit of reducing flooding with additional rainfall absorbed by the peatlands and reducing run-off.

Green job opportunities

Secondly, the work carried out through Space Intelligence alongside the actual physical restoration of the peatlands themselves could create many thousands of green jobs. This would be particularly attractive in rural areas, where high-quality jobs are often hard to come by.

Two very good reasons that this announcement is good for Space Intelligence, Scotland, the UK and the wider world.

Turning social media photos into nature conservation data

Imagine if you could harness the power of all the images uploaded to social media, coupled with AI, to understand more about our world in hyper-localised detail. Think Scotland.

Space Intelligence has secured a $150,000 grant from Shell’s GameChanger programme to do exactly this.

It will develop a proof-of-concept system that combines social-media images of nature with data from earth-orbiting satellites to produce detailed landcover maps that might ultimately be used to tackle climate change.

The company will first apply its system in Brazil but hopes to roll it out across the globe.

Read more on the Space Intelligence blog

Dr Murray Collins, Space Lead at the Bayes Centre, University of Edinburgh

"Space Intelligence's concept of fusing satellite data and social-media data is unique. It is in an incredible application of artificial intelligence to address climate-change challenges."

Saptarshi Das, Data Science R&D Manager at Shell

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