A satellite is one of the prime discoveries by scientists, which has benefitted modern civilization greatly. These ‘eyes in the sky’ keep orbiting the Earth, helping in the transmission of signals and carrying out various other tasks such as remote sensing and weather forecasting.
Recently, the NASA satellite imagery revealed a vast huddle of Adélie penguins, a species fast declining in some parts of the world, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The birds are crammed on to a rocky archipelago called the Danger Islands.
In 2014, while studying the satellite imagery from the Landsat Earth-monitoring satellites run by NASA and the US Geological Survey, scientists spotted significant guano stains on the Danger Islands, revealing the possibility of the existence of a vast population of penguins.
The images prompted a team of researchers to head to the Danger Islands the following year to arrange an expedition to count the number of penguins thriving there. Soon after their arrival, they realized that counting the flightless aquatic birds by hand would be an uphill task. To carry out this monumental work, the scientists used a quadcopter drone to snap images of the entire island from above and count the penguins and their nests using neural network software. The penguin count came to some stunning 1.5 million. Along with Adélie penguins, explorers also found nearly 100 nests of gentoo penguins and around 27 nests of chinstrap penguins in the islands. This weird and incredible discovery of penguins gives researchers the opportunity to design better marine protected areas, thus ensuring that places such as the Danger Islands are included in preservation plans. Furthermore, the data provides a benchmark for tracking population changes and birth distribution in the future.
“The most important implication of this work is related to the design of Marine Protected Areas in the region,” said Heather Lynch, study co-author. “Now that we know this tiny island group is so important, it can be considered for further protection from fishing.”
Scientists took many years to prepare such an expedition, as well as create a drone that could resist the climate in the Danger Islands which ranges between 0 and -10 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
The researchers, who mentioned the exploration in the journal, Scientific Reports, say that it is completely astonishing to have discovered something like this. “It’s a classic case of finding something where no one really looked! The Danger Islands are hard to reach, so people didn’t really try that hard,” said team-member Dr. Tom Hart from Oxford University, U.K.
Not only are the Danger Islands a vast habitat of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, they also seem to not have gone through population declines seen along the western side of Antarctic Peninsula that is associated with rapid climate change. Encircled by thick sea ice, these extremely remote islands have remained hidden from the world and somewhat protected from the effects of climate change and human activity.
Hence, modern satellites are greatly helpful tools for discovering and studying hard-to-access places. And there are yet many other natural discoveries to be made using these wonderful man-made sky objects.