Using aerial imagery and AI to paint picture of Australia’s climate future

Australia is one of the most urbanised countries, with rapid growth over the last decade spurring an increased development and habitation of our urban centres. Whilst vibrant, multicultural cities are thriving across our country, we need to work together to strengthen sustainability in our environments and communities – for our sake and future generations.

Recently, the Federal Government released the latest State of the Environment Report, with details in the report acting as a guide on how successful we are as a nation in protecting and nurturing our environment. Sadly, the overview is sobering, with the report finding that all aspects of the Australian environment were found to be under pressure and declining.

From a global perspective and despite accounting for only two per cent of the Earth’s surface, cities produce 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 78% of the world’s energy. It is clear that there is a need to balance our built environments with green spaces while protecting the environment’s overall health. We have the tools to do that, and with increased collaborations and partnerships, we can start to reverse previous damage.

How aerial imagery and AI can help decision makers

Tech like AI further enable the monitoring, managing, and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Such tools will be vital and feature heavily in the Federal Government’s climate change plan. But we can’t develop technology for technology’s sake. We must continue innovating and stretching the limits of current technology to help shape a more livable world.

A clear view on climate change

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” While not meant to be taken literally, this proverb resonates, even more so today. Nearmap’s ‘Leafiest Cities’ campaign unveiled the state of tree coverage in Australia’s capital cities using our artificial intelligence (AI) data and location intelligence tools.

Data and imagery found that the removal of tree canopy can lead to the creation of urban heat islands, resulting in some cities being 4–10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas.

Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity due to climate change. Australia’s seasonal fire periods are becoming longer. In NSW, for example, the bushfire season now extends to almost eight months of the year. In 2022, the country experienced one of its worst flooding disasters with multiple events in February and July.

Changes in the climate have become undeniable for Australians. Throughout and immediately after these events, aerial imagery from Nearmap was able to quantify the scale of the disasters. This provided an undeniable ‘source of truth’ that highlighted the extent of the damage and served as an invaluable resource for first responders and rescue efforts.

Through high-detail aerial imagery, we’re able to reveal the devastating effects of climate change. Over time, aerial images show the ravages of climate catastrophes, such as coastal erosion or diminishing vegetation, providing powerful data that assist with future planning.

Disaster recovery and resilience

More than simply a proof point, aerial imaging technology can also be used to provide an accurate view of a crisis, delivering crucial information to disaster response teams. Australia is prone to severe weather events, with conditions exacerbated by climate change.

An example of this is Disaster Relief Australia (DRA) which leverages Nearmap content and location intelligence to make aerial assessments of the ground during a disaster, such as a fire or a flood. Using aerial images in the recovery phase, Disaster Relief Australia identifies which communities need support with long-term repair and recovery planning and work.

Minderoo Foundation also utilises aerial imaging and AI to support its mission of protecting the communities most vulnerable to natural disasters. By utilising cutting-edge mapping and geospatial tech, its goal is to reduce the number of bushfires in Australia. Ultimately, relying on aerial imaging, it hopes to have the capacity to put out any fire in Australia within an hour.

It also works with communities to help them become more resilient to climate events by monitoring changing landscapes. Utilising the data provided by aerial imaging and AI-driven mapping tech, allows Minderoo Foundation to identify dangerous areas and where to apply its resources. It monitors fuel loads in bushfire zones and tracks potential issues in flood-prone areas, keeping close watch of the landscape to mitigate crises before they eventuate.

A window into the future

Not only does aerial imagery give a snapshot of what’s happening, but it can also provide a glimpse into the future. Scientists and researchers can use the data collected through aerial imagery and AI tech in climate models, simulating changes and predicting future outcomes.

Climate modelling is incredibly sophisticated. AI content gathered through modern-day mapping tech has the potential to accelerate this field of study even further. Through accurate modelling, AI content could underpin major urban development decisions in the decades ahead. Similarly, insights provided by tech can inspire the future of our lived environment.

When our team analysed the Nearmap Leafiest Cities data, we saw dramatic and transformative improvements in tree cover, achieved in a relatively short time. In Buxton NSW, for example, which was sadly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/20, imagery and data revealed the vegetation has regenerated rapidly since the natural disaster.

In fact, Buxton has today almost doubled its tree canopy, from 34% after the bushfires, to 59% tree cover. This bolsters confidence that improving our environment is not a mirage.

The big picture

Climate change issues are now on the agenda like never before. The world has turned its focus to driving initiatives that will make a dent in climate change. From renewable energy sources to stopping deforestation and net-zero goals, the future is promising.

But only through quantitatively monitoring how our world is changing, and measuring the effectiveness of various interventions, can we truly know if the decisions we’re making now will have the desired outcome in the years ahead. Aerial imagery and artificial intelligence data on their own won’t reduce carbon emissions. But these technologies and tools empower those who are fighting climate change to make better and more informed decisions.

From informing disaster response teams to enabling govts and local councils to quantify the livability of their cities over time and providing scientists with data for modelling, high-resolution aerial imagery and AI data will play a crucial role globally to fight climate change.

Stephen Neale is the Head of Solutions Engineering at Nearmap Australia.

Stephen Neale, Head of Solutions Engineering, Nearmap Australia