Friday, September 27, 2019

Finding the Future in the Past

Finding the Future in the Past

Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 28 September. I'm Anthony Day and yes, this is the second edition of the Sustainable Futures Report this week. If you want to hear about the global climate strike I did a special edition on Tuesday and you'll find it where you found this.
Following on from last week’s episode there’s news from Hinkley C, and unsurprisingly it’s bad news.
I spoke to Julia Hartley Brewer on Talk Radio this week. In a minute you can judge for yourself how well I did. This is the week of another United Nations climate conference and I’ll talk briefly about that. Do stay on to the end. I’ll play out with a new track by John Dassieu called “Try the Greens”.
First of all though, let's hear from an archaeologist on how new techniques can help us deal with the climate crisis.

Anthony Day: My guest today is Dr. Chris Fisher, who's professor of anthropology at Colorado State University. He's an archeologist, he's Director of the Center of Archeology & Remote Sensing, and he's Founder and Director of The Earth Archive. Chris, welcome and thanks for joining us.
Chris Fisher: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
Anthony Day: Now, you've been working in the jungles of Central America on archeological surveys, and you've been using a new technique called LIDAR, which I associate with self-driving cars. But there's obviously something else there. You've actually, from that, moved all the way to a link with how we manage climate change. That's not very clear, the way I've explained it, but I'm sure you could do that a lot better.
Chris Fisher: Well, I hope so. I was trained as a traditional archeologist using methodologies that have been around since the 1950s. In 2009, I documented for the first time a very large and complex city that we didn't know was there in Central Mexico. Using those traditional technologies, it would have taken me a couple decades maybe to fully survey, map all the buildings in this place and understand it.

So I got frustrated and I turned to this new technology called LIDAR, which is basically a way... We use airborne LIDAR, which is a little different than the terrestrial kinds of LIDAR that are on self-driving cars or et cetera. In using this kind of LIDAR, you have some sort of aerial platform. It could be a fixed wing aircraft, could be a helicopter. In the future, it will be drones. Although that technology isn't quite sophisticated enough right now for us to use that. From that aircraft, you shoot down a grid of infrared beams, laser pulses. It's like sonar for the ground. When one of those pulses reaches an object on the ground, could be the top of a tree, could be a bird, could be a leaf, could be the surface of the ground, it returns back to the sensor in the aircraft and it gives you a measure of distance. Every second, that instrument shoots out like a million pulses. So it's a very dense grid. No matter how intense the vegetation, some of those pulses will reach the ground surface and return to the aircraft.

So what you end up with is a three-dimensional cloud of points at an incredibly high resolution. So we can, by using computer algorithms, filter away, digitally scrub, or practice what I and other people have been calling digital deforestation. We can remove that vegetation and see the archeology on the ground. I've used that technology.

First we used it in Mexico and it was absolutely groundbreaking. When I saw my first products from that LIDAR, honestly, I teared up because I realized that in 45 minutes of flying, the LIDAR company had accomplished what would have taken decades archeologically. Then we also used it in Honduras to discover some new lost cities that we didn't necessarily know were there.

So was a groundbreaking technology in that sense, just for archeology alone. But what I realized is that all of that vegetation that I spent decades... All that vegetation that I spent days and days, not decades, days and days scrubbing away, are the careers of hundreds of other scientists who are actually studying the trees. Tree size, forest composition, tree age. Geologists, hydrologists. It's that the topology of that place. And many other things that we don't even really know how to use these records yet. But I know that they're critically important.

In that sense, these LIDAR records are the ultimate conservation records because they record the ground surface and everything on it in incredibly high resolution. That led me to this ultimate realization that we can use these records to fight climate change to help-
Anthony Day: Right. How would you do that?
Chris Fisher: Well, for most areas of the world, we don't have high resolution records of the earth surface and everything on it. We're basically kind of shooting in the dark. We have a better idea. We have better maps of the moon than we do have our own planet surface. So to measure change, you need to measure against something. You need baseline data so you can understand how things are changing. We don't have that for most of the world. So we can't begin to evaluate change. We can't begin to measure change, figure out how things are changing. So a rational first step in fighting the climate crisis is having those baseline data so we can begin to measure change.
Anthony Day: How practical is that? Because the earth is a big space. That's partly why we use satellites for surveillance because they can cover such a big area. But you're actually using aircraft as opposed to spacecraft. So you will need an awful lot of them, won't you?
Chris Fisher: It will be expensive and it will be time consuming, but it has to be done. I mean, from our perspective, we don't have a choice. Now, we can start with areas of the world that are most threatened. So one of our immediate goals is to scan the Amazon. We believe that we can scan the Amazon within five years for $15 million. Which sounds like a lot of money, but it's not that much money.
Anthony Day: 15 million?
Chris Fisher: It's half the cost of Jeff Bezos's new yacht. It is three 30-second Super Bowl commercials in the United States. It's a fraction of the cost that Google just spent sending all of those billionaires to whatever Mediterranean island it is that they sent them to. So for you and I, that's an unfathomable amount of money. But it is possible to get that sort of money. That's exactly what we're trying to do.
Anthony Day: Well now, this is very interesting because obviously, you're aware of all the controversy about the fires in the Amazon at the moment.
Chris Fisher: Yes.
Anthony Day: One of the things that I've come across is that the fires which are visible from space are on those areas which have already been deforested and are being cleared and re-cleared for agriculture. But that there may be other fires on the forest floor, but they are not visible to satellites. But from what you're saying, they would be visible to LIDAR, wouldn't they?
Chris Fisher: They absolutely would be visible to LIDAR. But once we scan those areas, they are frozen in time.
Anthony Day: Yes, yes, of course.
Chris Fisher: Those records are indelible. They're not like a photograph. Those three-dimensional records do not degrade. You can actually put on 3D glasses and walk through them like the... I don't know if anybody remembers the movie Tron.
Anthony Day: Yes.
Chris Fisher: I might be the only one that remembers it.
Anthony Day: A long time ago.
Chris Fisher: Yeah. Or the Holodeck on Star Trek. So once we scan those areas, that creates a baseline for them. And we will be able to see some of those areas that have been burned or are deforested, et cetera.

I mean, you're absolutely right. The Amazon fire story is incredibly complicated. We're seeing there is burning in areas that have been cleared already. There is burning associated with areas that are newly being cleared. It's intensely complicated. Within the scientific community, there's a lot of debate about is it... I've heard numbers that range from 6% higher than normal to 60% higher than normal.
Anthony Day: Oh gosh.
Chris Fisher: So whatever scenario you're talking about, it's absolutely horrific because once these areas are destroyed, you can't rebuild this tropical forest. Which is kind of a misconception, I think. We definitely saw that in the Mosquitia area of Honduras where we had used LIDAR to document a couple of unknown cities and possibly, help unravel an unknown culture.

That rainforest in the Mosquitia, which is often called the lungs of Central America or the little Amazon sometimes. Once those areas are deforested, they don't return back into tropical forest. They turn into something else because those forests developed under a different climatic regime. So you can't go back and rebuild those places. So once they're gone, they're gone. You can't reforest these areas. Or you can reforest them, but not with the same kinds of tropical trees that are there now.
Anthony Day: Right. How close are you to being able to actually do a survey of the Amazon? You're still looking for backers?
Chris Fisher: Yes, we're definitely in fundraising mode. We're definitely looking for backers. But we have some funding now. We have some donations now that will allow us to start scanning in the Amazon. I can't tell you where, because we're still seeking the permitting for it. But we hope to start scanning in January of 2020. I'm an academic, so at the end of the semester, we're going to head to South America and hopefully start scanning immediately.
Anthony Day: I see. You're going to record all your data in what you're calling The Earth Archive. What's the purpose behind The Earth Archive?
Chris Fisher: We want to record the entire land mass of the earth. Some of it has already been done, some fraction of it. We want to mirror some of those data, create new data. Then open source it all. Make it all freely, publicly available.

There are a lot of serious technical difficulties that are inherent to that goal. Just storing the data and managing it and distributing it. And the ethics of how to do that are intensely complicated. But also, figuring out who gets access to those data, et cetera in the short term. Our goal is to have it all open sourced within 10 years of scanning it. And-
Anthony Day: Okay. Yeah, you were saying it could be of interest to a whole range of people from dendrologists to climate scientists to geologists. But could it not backfire? Could it not show the people who want to mine the Amazon where the best places are to find the minerals that they're after?
Chris Fisher: Well, this is a very interesting question. We firmly believe that within decades, all of these information will be open sourced already. There really is no place that you can hide from the kinds of remote sensing tools that we're going to have in a few decades' time. So it's up to us to figure out how to distribute these kinds of data and how to use them now.

One common thing that we hear that's often related to that is the question of looting. Aren't we for archeology by scanning these places and open sourcing the data, aren't we just creating a roadmap for looters? The fact of the matter is most archeological sites... I've been to hundreds of archaeological sites, both in Europe and all throughout the Americas. The only place that I've ever been that hadn't already been looted were those sites in Honduras. So the looters already know where the sites are. It's the archeologists who don't know where they are.

So are we creating a roadmap for people to go in and mine these places? Probably not. There's already so much illegal mining going on in the Amazon already that by scanning these places and working with these governments and other agencies, we can actually show them where the mining is happening and help stop it. We can show them where the deforestation is happening and stop it. We can show them where drug activity and stuff is happening and we can help them stop it.

I firmly sort of fall on this side of this issue, you can't protect something if you don't know it's there. You can't protect something that you don't know is there.
Anthony Day: Fair enough, fair enough. Well, looking at other opportunities, have you been in touch at all with the Environmental Protection Agency? Because I would've thought that scanning low-lying coastal areas would be an important exercise. Because as you say, if you set up a baseline, then you are able to do it again and to see how things are changing. And to see how the measures which are being taken to mitigate against or to adapt to the effects of climate change, how effective they've been.
Chris Fisher: We are working a little bit in the United States to scan coastal areas. Some of those coastal areas have already been scanned. Not at a resolution that we think is high enough, but there are some records. We're working to actually begin to mirror those records from The Earth Archive for people, to make them openly accessible.

There are several efforts in the United States to create LIDAR records for some parts of the United States. It's imperfect and there's some problems with it and we kind of want to learn from that. But we are working with some areas to start scanning coastal spots to help do that. So we are doing that, yeah.
Anthony Day: Okay. Are you working with anybody else in other parts of the world? In Europe, Africa, Russia, or anywhere like that?
Chris Fisher: We have reached out to some people. We hope to have one potential model for The Earth Archive as like a digital seed bank. So we hope to have some place within the EU where we have a branch of The Earth Archive. We also hope to have a branch of The Earth Archive in Southeast Asia. We're looking at some potential places perhaps in Japan to help house that, that data to sort of be a satellite center of The Earth Archive. So we are sort of looking at that.
Anthony Day: Would you have teams in those places who are creating the data, the local data to add to the Archive?
Chris Fisher: In an ideal situation, we would indeed have teams to do that.
Anthony Day: So that's a long-term hope then.
Chris Fisher: It's a long-term hope and we need to begin scanning projects in Southeast Asia. We need to begin scanning projects in tropical Africa. There are parts even in the Mediterranean where scanning projects should be going on. So yeah, it's definitely a big project and it's a long-term hope.

But I'm a person that strongly feels that this is the challenge that we're going to face in the 21st century. This is the big challenge for humanity. Everybody has to ask themselves. They have to sort of reach within themselves and ask themselves, what are they doing now to help combat the climate crisis? When people look back at them when their grandchildren's grandchildren think about what these people did, how are they going to justify how their actions now?

So I think everybody has to stand up and do something. This is what we feel that we can do. We can use write these LIDAR records to help combat this challenge that we face. It's a crisis, but it's also this amazing potential opportunity for us to come together as a species and face this common problem. Maybe it's something that could actually bring us closer together and help resolve some of the political differences and other differences that we have moving forward. I know many people would say, "That's so optimistic," whatever. But I'm somebody that has to see some good in what's happening. We have-
Anthony Day: I think what you're talking about has got to be done. You're right. We've got to all work together. Of course, one of the most important things is getting governments on side. Governments are often very timid because they don't want to do anything which makes them unelectable. Which of course gives them a very, very short-term view. But if we can persuade the governments that things like this, that information like this, can be made available and will let them make better decisions, then this has got to be a good thing, hasn't it?
Chris Fisher: I absolutely think so. I think we do have to work to get politicians and governments on board with these problems. But we also have to work from the grassroots because they simply aren't moving quickly enough.

I'm an archeologist. I'm trained to be a time traveler. I'm trained to see the world as it was. I'm trained to see the world as it is today. And I'm training to imagine the world as it will be in the future. Because of that, I see the world in big, long chunks of time. Thousand year chunks of time. I don't see the world in four year slices of a US presidential administration, which is how a lot of politicians see things. That's a problem because they lack that long-term thinking and this is a long-term problem.

We could all start living like the Flintstones this afternoon, and any changes we make today are telegraphed decades in the future. We have to begin this long-term thinking.
Anthony Day: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You may have heard a quote from one of our British Prime Ministers who said, "A week is a long time in politics."
Chris Fisher: Yeah. Well, we need to start thinking longer than that.
Anthony Day: Absolutely.
Chris Fisher: But yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Anthony Day: Yeah. Okay. We all should be doing something. Anything in particular that we should do, do you think? Anything you would like people to take away from this conversation, think more about and actually act on?
Chris Fisher: Well, I think I'd love it if they supported The Earth Archive. And then I think also, I think truly, everybody has to reach within themselves and think of ways in which they can contribute to solutions for the climate crisis. The time for sitting on our hands has passed. It is time for action, and everybody has to do something. There have been points in our history where we have been able to come together for a common good. World War II is one example of that. I think we're facing another one of these tipping points for our species. I think it is possible to come out on the other side of this thing with a more unified, more successful adaptation. But we all have to work together to create that.
Anthony Day: Chris, that's really interesting. Thank you very much. I'll encourage everybody to go and have a look at That's All one string. There, they will find a link to your TED Talk, which tells us more about your archeological discoveries in Central America. Thanks again and thank you very much for taking the time to talk to The Sustainable Futures Report.
Chris Fisher: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Chris Fisher, professor of anthropology at Colorado State University.
And in other news…
This week saw the United Nations conference on climate change in New York and impassioned speeches by Greta Thunberg. You can find her all over the internet. The outcome of the conference is generally seen as disappointing. Some countries committed to achieving Zero Carbon by 2050 but the major polluters, the United States, China and India, set no time-limited targets.
I’m on Talk Radio Again
Also this week we had the Labour Party conference, brought to an early close by events in the Supreme Court which are of historic importance but outside the scope of this podcast. Nevertheless, they had time to pass a resolution stating that a future Labour government would commit to achieving net Zero Carbon by 2030. This compares with the present government's target of 2050 and the Liberal Democrats’ 2045. Julia Hartley Brewer of Talk Radio wanted to talk to me about it, but clearly not for very long. Asked to be ready for 8.30 I eventually got on for 9.30.

No time for a transcript unfortunately.

No mistake about Julia's agenda there. I'd love to try and change her mind, if only she’d listen.
Well, that's enough for another week. There will be another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report next week, only one, although I have no idea at this point what it will be about. I feel sure there will be something to do with the climate crisis and sustainability to talk about.
Power down?
Before I go, EDF have announced that the nuclear power station under construction at Hinckley C is not expected to commence production before 2025 and will cost at least another £1 billion on top of the existing overruns.
Until next time, thank you for your attention and thanks for getting this far.
And now here is John Dassieu with his song “Try the Greens”. There’s a video version of this. The link is on the blog at -


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