Climate Change

Mapping the Way to a World That Can Feed 10 Billion People

September 21, 2016

Follow Cara
Good maps and models show us how things are shifting – and are likely to shift in the future — under climate change © Benjamin Drummond

Meet the NatureNet Science Fellows: Shannan Sweet (Cornell)

Conservancy NatureNet Science Fellow Shannan Sweet spends most of her time these days thinking about climate change, agriculture and, well, maps. But the maps that interest her most are not about road trips, or hiking adventures. They’re not even as much about a place as they are about a destination.

Her destination of choice? A world that can feed 10 billion people without exhausting its resources or exacerbating climate change.

“My focus,” she says, “is on how to effectively plan for, implement and incentivize agricultural practices that help farmers not only adapt to, but also mitigate climate change. To even begin to do that, we really need up-to-date, highly detailed maps.”

And by “up-to-date, highly detailed,” Sweet means the kind of high-resolution maps she creates from remote imagery (usually from satellites or aircraft). These are maps so precise they can show what’s growing on agricultural plots as small as one quarter of an acre, made from imagery, Sweet says, detailed enough to allow her “to ‘train’ specialized remote sensing computer programs to recognize specific types of land cover – like apple orchards and corn fields, vineyards, farms and subdivisions.”

In many cases, this is also imagery that wasn’t available to most people as little as five years ago – either because it was too costly, too classified, or because remotely sensed imagery at that resolution just didn’t exist.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the maps themselves,” says Sweet. “It’s what they enable us to do. Good maps and models show us how things are shifting – and are likely to shift in the future — under climate change, and guide us as we try to figure out how to intensify agriculture in specific landscapes without, for example, spoiling our water supplies, or exacerbating climate change.”

Getting a Clear Picture of the Whole Landscape

“We can do so much now with remote sensing technologies, spectral imaging and climate models,” says Sweet. “These new tools enable us to get a clear picture of the whole landscape, and how things are connected – where agriculture is on the land, what’s growing where under current climate conditions, and what lakes, rivers or streams are nearby. Seeing the whole canvas of a landscape is important because what’s growing on your land has an effect on what’s flowing in your water. It’s always about context.”

Once the current land use maps are up to date, Sweet and her colleagues at the Conservancy and Cornell University where she’s working on her fellowship, will combine them with climate models to get a sense of how changes in measures like temperature, storm severity, rainfall, or drought could affect agriculture in specific areas in the future.

It’s that ability to get the whole picture – the context — of a landscape that is so important for enabling people to plan for agriculture under a future of climate change.

Field Testing Technology

Right now, Sweet’s work is focused on field testing these technologies and tools in Upstate New York. She’s also collaborating with colleagues who are developing related maps, as well as guidelines and recommendations for climate-smart agricultural practices – like no-till ag, that has been shown to keep more carbon in the soil, require less fertilizer, and result in less erosion.

NatureNet Science Fellow Shannan Sweet

Sweet grew up in a family of farmers who still run a greenhouse near Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. From there, her career has taken her to California’s Santa Cruz Island to help save endangered foxes and the Alaskan Arctic to document the ways climate change (specifically warming) alters vegetation and carbon exchange.

“The Arctic work was my first extensive experience with a large science project,” she says. “It was really satisfying to work collaboratively with so many others with expertise in different fields on the biggest challenge facing the world: climate change.”

But it was not just her personal connection to her home state, or her commitment to applied science for climate change adaptation and mitigation that brought her to Ithaca as a NatureNet Science Fellow. She primarily came to New York because it’s an excellent place to field test new technologies for guiding land use planning and climate-smart ag practices.

It Always Comes Back to Climate Change

“It always comes back to climate change,” says Sweet. “Because the impacts of changing climate on ag are already proving to be more severe in the western U.S. than in the east, pressure to expand and consolidate the agricultural industry in other places – like New York State – is expected to increase rapidly. We need to do everything we can to get ahead of the change so we can make decisions with as much information as possible.”

Maps can tell the story of a place through time – you can see snapshots of the past, a clear view of the present, and with enough data and strong models, you can conjure the different futures that may one day be written across the landscape. The key is seeing those futures while there’s still time to enhance or change them.

As anyone who has ever been lost knows, there is nothing better than an accurate, up-to-date, highly detailed map. Of course, for that map to be useful, you have to know where you are at the moment and have a pretty good idea of where you want to end up in the future. Shannan Sweet has a clear view of the future she’d like to help create – now it’s a matter of getting a clear sense of how far a distance she has to go, and how rough the terrain will be.

Shannan Sweet is a NatureNet Science Fellow at Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy. She uses technologies, including geospatial analysis and spectral image processing, to help farmers adapt to climate change. 

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

Follow Cara