Unleashing the Power of Technology to Protect our Planet

When we consider our fragile world today, it can be easy to feel discouraged as we observe growing threats to our lands, our seas, our cultural treasures and even to the many species that roam our beloved planet. And yet, as I look across the world, I see many reasons to feel optimistic. The source of my optimism? The remarkable efforts of fearless men and women who are on the front lines of these challenges, bringing a new generation of innovative approaches by unleashing technology to help combat many of these threats, and who are working to usher in a new era of science and exploration across many fields.

Drones and GPS Tracking Are Saving Elephants

The first time I heard about Bryan Christy’s groundbreaking work on international wildlife trafficking, I was struck by his creative use of modern technology. As a National Geographic Explorer and Director of Special Investigations for National Geographic Magazine, Bryan has been on the trail of poachers who are responsible for the slaughter of 30,000 elephants a year across central Africa. Using a GPS tracking chip secretly tucked inside a fake ivory elephant tusk, Bryan was able to track and monitor the movements of the traffickers, uncovering a vast network of organized crime that was previously unknown.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Christy, National Geographic Explorer and Director of Special Investigations for National Geographic Magazine

In another case of ivory trafficking that Bryan was investigating, he knew he had to go behind the scenes into a lumberyard in Togo, where he suspected large caches of illegal ivory was being stored. But how to get inside? The area was surrounded by locked gates and high fences. Bryan devised a scheme to introduce the neighborhood children to his “toy” drone. As enthusiasm grew, the children shrieked with excitement as the drone flew around the surrounding area — including over the lumberyard that Bryan suspected was a key center of trafficking — providing the perfect cover for Bryan’s investigative tactics. Soon, images from the drone began to confirm what was suspected­ — the lumberyard represented a hub of illegal ivory trafficking. He says, “Animals have no voice — it is my job to give voice to the voiceless. If you can, you should travel to Africa to see an elephant face to face. It will change your life. You will tell your own story.” Brian’s work has been cited as one of the ten ways National Geographic has changed the world. For his efforts, Bryan was named Explorer of the Year in 2014.

A Modern Day Indiana Jones Leverages Latest Technology to Locate and Protect Ancient Sites

I knew I wanted to meet National Geographic Fellow Sarah Parcak before she became the 2016 $1 million TED Prize winner. It was her title that first drew me to her work: Space Archaeologist. And then her Twitter handle only added to my interest — @IndyFromSpace. What? Aside from the fact that she is a vibrant young woman whose enthusiasm for her chosen field is infectious, I was seriously intrigued by the idea that she is using the very latest technology to find some of the oldest structures on the planet. Sarah has devised a method of archeology that taps satellite technology to uncover many hidden, cultural treasures that lay beneath the surface of our earth — antiquities that time and natural elements have buried, such as pyramids, temples and every form of ancient structures known. For example, Sarah’s innovative use of satellite technology has enabled the “discovery” of 17 previously-unknown pyramids.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Parcak, Archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow

So today, archeologists, who usually set out for a dig with limited data to guide them, can now be directed to “hot spots” where antiquities are mostly likely to be found. But Sarah’s dream doesn’t stop there — her TED Prize wish is to engage citizens everywhere in the business of identifying and protecting sacred cultural sites that are today threatened by communities out to exploit and/or destroy such sites — ranging from those that traffic antiquities for personal gain, to those out to destroy them, like ISIS. It is exactly this innovative use of new technology to enhance a very old discipline, archaeology, that makes me so excited for the next phase of exploration and discovery.

Recycled Telephones are Helping To Save Our Rainforests

Rainforests are the Earth’s oldest living ecosystems. So when you think of rainforests, chances are you don’t think about recycled cell phones. And yet, Emerging Explorer, engineer and physicist Topher White has developed an ingenious new method to help monitor illegal poaching and logging activity in these threatened ecosystems.

Deforestation is the second largest contributor to climate change, and it is estimated that between 50 and 90 percent of rainforest logging is illegal.

Topher’s innovative monitoring approach involves clusters of recycled cell phones attached throughout the forests. The phones pick up the sound of chainsaws or vehicles and transmit the audio over the standard cell phone network into the cloud, where they can be analyzed in real time. Based upon the detection, alerts go out to rangers and wardens, traditionally over SMS. The faster they can get there, the less damage done.

Photo courtesy of Rainforest Connection

Combatting Climate Change With a Next Generation Nuclear Reactor

Leslie Dewan, another Emerging Explorer, is designing a version of what’s called a molten salt reactor, which uses liquid rather than solid fuel, to combat climate change and improve safety. She says, “The next-generation reactors will have all the benefits of conventional designs but be even safer, as they can consume their own nuclear waste.” As a nuclear and mechanical engineer from MIT, Leslie says, “At the most fundamental level I’m an environmentalist. I’m doing this because I think nuclear power is the best way of producing large amounts of carbon-free electricity. I think the world needs nuclear power, alongside solar, wind, hydro and geothermal, if we want to have any hope of reducing fossil fuel emissions and preventing global climate change.”

As Chairman of the National Geographic Society, I am immensely proud of the important contributions of the men and women of National Geographic who often go to the front lines of the unknown and in the process, change the world. Since its founding in 1888, National Geographic has remained committed to funding extraordinary explorers, scientists and photographers, and to the mission of inspiring people to care about our planet. Never before has this work seemed as urgent or as necessary as it does today.

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