Gigapanning Patagonia: by Dr. Stuart Pimm

Introduction: Dr. Stuart Pimm, a celebrated conservation biologist, Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and author of The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth, serves on the Science Advisory Board of Conservacion Patagonica.  In this post, he explains a new project he has introduced to the future park: using Gigapan imagery technology to create a detailed and precise photographic record of ecosystem changes.  This innovative project will help inform the habitat restoration work involved in transforming former sheep ranches into a new national park.  

“Click… whirrrrrrrrr….click ….. whirrrrrr ” — accompanied by an incessant wind that beats you on all sides on bad days.  These sounds begin to fill my dreams at night. Most days are bad. Sonny Bass and I stand on the windward side of my tripod, sheltering it, holding it down firmly to prevent it blowing over. On more than one occasion, we fail.

Late February and summer is ending in Patagonia. When dark clouds race over the sun, the wind chills us quickly. At 47 degrees south and 500m (1600 feet) above sea level, summer is short. No longer the long days of when I was here in early January, last year. “click… whirrrrrrrrr….click ….. whirrrrrr” … and then silence. After 35 minutes, the equipment has stopped. I take the camera from its mount, Sonny packs the equipment in the back of our 4×4, and we recover inside it with a cup of hot coffee.

We drive another 10 kilometres (6 miles) down the dirt road and start again.

Our mission: to take photographs of what will become the new Patagonia National Park. These are not just ordinary photographs. They contain millions of pixels — ours have billions of them. These are gigapans — and the equipment that produces them was just the answer to a problem I had.

At the end of my visit last year, Kris Tompkins asked if I would advise on the scientific issues with the formation of this new national park. Kris is founder and president of Conservacion Patagonica. She and husband Doug are extraordinary philanthropists who have created huge protected areas in Chile and Argentina.

Guanacos now replace sheep across this landscape. How will that landscape change over the years to come? Photo Stuart Pimm

The Chacabuco Valley is one of them — a “Pleistocene Park” filled with guanacos, foxes, flamingos, upland geese and other wildlife. On a global scale, it’s not merely huge — the valley connects upland areas to create an area over one million hectares (nearly 4,000 square miles) — but ecologically significant.

Some 13% of Earth’s land surface is now protected, but some places are much easier to protect than others. Temperate grasslands are among the hardest. Only a small percentage of temperate grasslands are in national parks. Think of how little prairie remains in North America. These are the places we graze cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock.

The problem is how Kris and her team will follow and understand the ecological changes that will follow their removing the sheep from the valley. They had been there for over 80 years and massively overgrazed the landscape.

Other changes are surely afoot too. Disruptions to the climate are more severe at these higher latitudes than near the tropics. “Disruption” — because the changes are more complex than a simple “warming.”  There will be changes to rainfall and snowfall. The permanent ice sheets on the nearby mountains will shrink and perhaps even disappear. The flows of rivers will change in size and timing, the wetlands with their water birds and flamingos may evaporate.

Certainly, these changes may be slow and some subtle.  They will surely be complex.  So how can we follow them?

That was the question that exercised me last year. Then I got an e-mail from Mary Jo Daines at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

“Could you imagine a Gigapan as a useful tool?

To which the obvious answer was “yes!”

What a gigapan does is really hard to show on a single page like this one — and that’s really the point.

The best solution is to click on this link — it will take you one of the gigapans we produced. It looks like a very long skinny landscape photograph — and indeed it is.  But it comes with controls — you can move the photo to the left or right, up or down, and most importantly, you can zoom in … and in … and in … to see extraordinary detail.

The photograph below is just a small piece of this image.  Click on the link above — and you will see the complete landscape, though not much detail because the image is too small.  How much detail is there?

On the image you see two very small boxes — one of a distant skyline, the other of a group of guanacos.  On the gigapan, you can zoom in and see these pieces of the larger image in great details.

Detail 1: a distant snow pack and skyline is only a smaller piece of the larger image above. Photo: Stuart Pimm

Detail 2: a small group of guanacos feed on the vegetation at the edge of the marsh. Photo: Stuart Pimm

After a training workshop, I planned a return trip to Patagonia, with Sonny in tow.

The gigapan unit sits on top of a tripod and my Canon camera and its telephoto fits into a mount. Basically, the gigapan is a drive that takes a series of overlapping photographs — sometimes as many as 200 and more of them.  To make that happen, one programmes it to overlap the images correctly, to set the top left and bottom right of the images — or to set up a 360 degree view, and so on.

Then one hits “start” and the clicking and whirring starts.  Yes, the camera has to be programmed correctly, the focus set, the GPS of the location recorded, and on down a long checklist. I have no better friend or colleague to help with data collection than Sonny.  Spending a day in the field and to have found I messed up would have been expensive and embarrassing. Sonny and I have worked together in the Florida Keys and the Everglades for over twenty years.

Home for dinner and a glass of wine and the images have to be processed — “stitched” in the jargon. One arranges the individual photographs on a grid — say five rows of 47 images and the stitch programme gets to work.

It takes a while.

That computer programme impresses the nerd in me.  A single photograph is not lit uniformly — it’s brighter in the middle than at the edges because the light has travelled through less glass.  Put two images together and the edges are obvious.  The programme corrects that.  It blends the colours too, so that one sees no seams.

OK, enough techno-speak.  Why does this matter?

The end point is an image of a large landscape. OK, you can take landscapes with your point and shoot!  Agreed.  But this landscape has extraordinary detail — each of the 235 pieces is itself a detailed image taken with a telephoto.

Simply, one sees the wood and the trees.  The gigapan captures the broad features of the ecosystem and the individual species that comprise it.  Both will likely change in the decades to come — and the gigapan provides a means to follow these changes.

Is this a new idea?  Not even close!  One of my favourite books is still J.R. Hastings and R.M. Turner’s The Changing Mile.  Lugging plate cameras by mules, surveyors photographed Arizona in the late 1800s — then a very, wild west.  Returning 70 years later, Hastings and Turner re-photographed 90 of the same places.

Sometimes one can see the same individual plants a human lifetime apart. One can also see dramatic changes. The paired photographs gave Hastings and Turner insights into ecological processes one could not get otherwise. Those insights are compelling nearly half a century after they wrote them.

“Can’t we just do this from space?”  You ask.

Well, “yes” and “no” and “both!”

Detailed satellite images now cover much of what will become the new national park. Many changes to Earth’s lands will now be easy to follow as the years go by.  But those images have obvious limits — not least because they are from directly above.  A side view helps to identify plants but a close up view is essential.

The final very clever feature of gigapan is that it combines both close up and space.  Click on the button located to the right of this image and gigapan takes you to Google Earth and you can see both the satellite image and the gigapixel image.

So, my gift to ecologists several decades from now? A chance to see how the Chacabuco Valley has changed and, I hope, help provide some of the “why.”

Please enjoy those changes. Refrain from making snide remarks about how crude the technology was “back in 2011.”  Withhold your jokes about that ancient 4×4 we drove — visible in some of the photos we took.  Or how much carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere as we did so. If you get a scientific paper using our original photographs, drink a good Chilean cabernet in our honour.

And, when you take your peta-pixel images in the same spots as ours, likely getting out of your non-polluting vehicle for just a minute to do so, imagine being in the wind for hours.  “Back in 2011, those chaps had the right stuff,” you proclaim.  Damned right.

Sonny Bass, dressed appropriately for a late summer’s day in Patagonia, heads back to the 4×4 for a cup of coffee. Photo Stuart Pimm

This post appeared on National Geographic’s Newswatch on June 20, 2011.  See the original post here.

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