Home Tech Spying on Beavers From Space Could Help Save California

Spying on Beavers From Space Could Help Save California

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For the first time in four centuries, it’s good to be a beaver. The dam-building rodents have long been persecuted for their fur and vilified as pests. Today they are hailed by scientists as ecological saviors. Their ponds and wetlands store water in times of drought, filter out pollutants, provide habitat for endangered species and fight forest fires. In California, Castor canadensis It is so prized that the state recently invested millions in its restoration.

Although the benefits of beavers are undeniable, our knowledge remains full of gaps. We don’t know how many are out there, or which direction their populations are trending, or which watersheds most need a beaver infusion. Few states have systematically examined these; furthermore, many beaver ponds are hidden in remote streams, far from human settlements, where they are virtually impossible to count. “There’s so much we don’t understand about beavers, partly because we have no idea where they are,” says Emily Fairfax, a beaver researcher at the University of Minnesota.

But that is starting to change. In recent years, a team of beaver scientists and Google engineers learned an algorithm to recognize the rodents’ infrastructure in satellite images. Their creation has the potential to transform our understanding of these paddle-tailed engineers – and help climate-stressed states like California stage a comeback. And while the model hasn’t been made public yet, researchers are already drooling over its potential. “All of our efforts in the state should use this powerful mapping tool,” said Kristen Wilson, chief forest scientist at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s really exciting.”

The beaver mapping model is the brainchild of Eddie Corwin, a former member of Google’s real estate sustainability group. Around 2018, Corwin started thinking about how his company could become a better steward of water, especially the many coastal creeks that line its Bay Area offices. In the course of his research, Corwin read Water: a natural history, by an author aptly named Alice Outwater. One chapter was about beavers, whose abundant wetlands, Outwater wrote, “can hold millions of gallons of water” and “reduce downstream flooding and erosion.” Corwin, fascinated, devoured other beaver books and articles, and soon began converting to his friend Dan Ackerstein, a sustainability consultant who works with Google. “We both fell in love with beavers,” Corwin says.

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