NAU, partner institutions selected for international sustainability award

map of world's biodiversity

Northern Arizona University is a key partner in a project that has been recognized for its work in achieving one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—goals designed to protect and sustain all life on Earth amid a changing climate.

The 2021 GEO SDG Award highlights project partners UNDP Colombia, UNDP Ecuador and UNDP Peru for their remarkable efforts in bringing together government leaders and academic institutions to better monitor progress toward SDG 15— Life on Land. 

This project looks at forest health but does so in a new way. Currently, monitoring and reporting for SDG 15 focuses on forest extent, not forest quality. The NASA-funded project “Maintaining Life on Land (SDG 15) under Scenarios of Land Use and Climate Change in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru” is designed to fill this gap in three pilot countries and create a reproducible model for other countries. The UN Biodiversity Lab then makes available the validated spatial data for policy development and reporting on SDG 15.

NAU’s contribution to this important effort comes in the form of new satellite-derived datasets and indicators on high-integrity forest fragmentation and the extent and condition of riparian forests in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. Assistant research professor Patrick Jantz, Regents’ professor Scott Goetz, senior research scientist Patrick Burns and Ph.D. student Ivan Gonzalez, all from the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, make up the NAU team, with Gonzalez coordinating activities with UNDP country offices and environment ministries in the three countries.

“Earth observations are one of our best tools for consistently and transparently monitoring progress towards Sustainable Development Goals,” Jantz said. “The research we’re doing at NAU is contributing to international discussions on how to monitor progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 15, Sustaining Life on Land. Of course, the hardest part of the process is establishing linkages between the science and decision-makers which is why this award recognizing the work of the UNDP country offices is so well-deserved.”

Spatial data and indicators offer a powerful means to help nations prioritize action, monitor the results and hold actors across sectors accountable. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are home to 17 percent of the world’s last tropical forests with high ecological quality. These high integrity forests provide a suite of services including carbon sequestration, habitat for iconic vertebrate species and water filtration that are essential for planetary health and human well-being.

NAU plays a critical role in this work, using satellite imagery and geospatial tools to develop maps of high-integrity forest fragmentation and riparian forest extent. Fragmentation reduces forest condition, and fragmented forests are more likely to be lost to development, resource extraction or agriculture in the future. Riparian forests that grow in river corridors are important for ensuring dependable supplies of fresh water for humans and wildlife. These maps will enable Colombia, Peru and Ecuador to better monitor the condition of priority ecosystems and design policies to protect them.

“This team is a great example of NAU researchers contributing to important worldwide discussions about how we collaboratively address global problems,” President José Luis Cruz Rivera said. “Sharing our expertise and working with peers around the world has never been more important, and this work highlights how such partnerships move us forward.”

Read more about the importance of the UN Biodiversity Lab’s work.

“This is a commendable example of cross-sectoral and cross-country collaboration among organizations and communities from government, academia, the United Nations and other stakeholders to develop and validate the broad use of effective Earth observation-based methods and data for more effective monitoring and implementation of SDG 15 targets,” said Argyro Kavvada, executive director of the EO4SDG Initiative. “It also strongly aligns with GEO’s principles of full and open access to Earth observation data, information and knowledge to address some of the most pressing social, economic and environmental challenges.”

The recognition, which was given at a virtual awards ceremony at the GEO Week 2021 conference along with seven other awardees, comes at a time when the planet is facing a global biodiversity emergency, a climate emergency and a public health emergency, all stemming from the destruction of nature. There is still a large gap between the SDGs on nature and the action needed to address our planetary crisis. It also reinforces NAU’s leadership in producing top tier scientific research that can support national policymaking, implementation and reporting to address our planetary crisis.

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications