View From Above: The Importance of Aerial Photography in Environmental Stewardship

During an interview with Impactful Tourism Consultancy, Pilot and Geoscientist Nick Temos discusses the importance of aerial photography in documenting deforestation, topography, and resource development in British Columbia. Along with his most recent research, Nick also shares his photographs of the beautiful Pacific North-West.

How did you become involved in aerial photography?

“During training to be a pilot you have to “time build”, which means flying around exploring and gaining experience. Usually other pilots would head east from Vancouver Island towards Vancouver and the interior of British Columbia. That never really appealed to me when I knew how beautiful the west coast of the island was. I had been interested in photography for a few years and had been following some really talented landscape and aerial photographers from the area and decided to try it out. It was a steep learning curve – and still is honestly – but luckily it’s hard to take a bad photo out there! I’ve talked with people that were interested in photography but were discouraged when they struggled to find interesting or inspiring subjects to take photos of. I never really experienced that because it’s such a beautiful perspective from the air and I have always felt motivated to share it with people.”

How did you become involved with environmentalism and research?

“While I was doing all this “time building” on the west coast I noticed how much of Vancouver Island is impacted by forestry. It’s such a complex issue to understand economically, socially, and environmentally that I decided I needed to fly with people who could explain it. I emailed a local conservation organization named the Ancient Forest Alliance and ended up flying with my now good friend and conservation photographer TJ Watt. Since 2015 we’ve flown over most of the island and he’s documented the realities of industry on endangered coastal temperate rainforests. Doing these flights inspired me to pursue an education in Geoscience and I’ve since been able to participate in research on local ecosystems.”

What are some of the key environmental issues in British Columbia related to aerial photography?

“This is always a tricky answer and it’s difficult to pick a few issues off of a seemingly endless list. However, the province – and the world in general – is seeing some really disturbing trends happening that are reflected in environmental, social, and economic health. Aerial photography is effective in putting context and scale to the effects of forestry and other natural resource industries on the province’s landscapes. Our brains are unfortunately not well adapted to understanding large scales and distances. It’s really hard for us to comprehend ideas like “90% of all old-growth forests have been cut down” and unfortunately a lot of groups try to call people into action with numerical data. Where aerial photography is particularly effective is in providing visual data to literally see what that looks like, with clearcuts spanning entire mountain sides, and forestry from horizon to horizon. Visual media creates the best opportunity for people en masse to accurately perceive the implications of industry’s actions on the natural world.

Clearcutting on Vancouver Island- Photo by TJ Watt

The real issue is with how people process and react to what they see. It’s no secret that forestry is a charged issue from all angles. Food on most tables in BC’s rural communities is there because of forestry. It’s an intrinsic part of our provincial identity and unfortunately people’s opinions really are polarized and politicized. So the key environmental issue relating to forestry has been and always will be how social opinion and dialogue influences political action. The science is fairly clear that we as a province need to manage our resources better. The implications of our policies both figuratively and literally influence people and the environment downstream. That being said, it’s super depressing for people to see constant photos of clear cuts and hear the doom-and-gloom. It can potentially be counter-productive to what should be a broader goal of sharing the parts of our environment that we all love and identify with. Aerial photography provides some immense opportunities to share the pieces of our province that aren’t controversial. People are not polarized when they see a photo of a first time gray-whale mom and her calf in a bay surrounded by old-growth forests. Promoting those moments with incredible animals and places that exist in British Columbia is very important work. It helps build a common identity that we can use when we discuss some uncomfortable topics.”

What are some main uses for drone mapping and photography?

“Drone mapping and photogrammetry has exploded in the last five or so years. Consumer and prosumer drones are relatively inexpensive now and packed with some super powerful sensors and cameras. Cloud-based software has also allowed amateurs and professionals to collect great data that spans almost every branch of the social and physical sciences. I’m really interested where AI and deep learning will take drone-based science projects in the next few years. As energy density in batteries continues to increase it will be feasible to have drones capture data nearly 24 hours per day. This would allow a farmer to monitor crop health using infrared in real time and track how it’s changing, or allow a city to employ AI to efficiently open and close highway lanes to reduce carbon emissions of vehicles idling in traffic. Not many people realize just how much of a breakthrough technology we’re experiencing and how much it’s going to change the world. I’m pretty optimistic that all of this will play out in a beneficial way for small communities. Generally – on a local scale – if people are made aware of problems or issues in the environment they tend to act quickly to change it. Hopefully, tools like drones can help some grassroots groups do things like monitoring river temperatures and salmon spawning habitat to better allocate limited resources. Just last summer, I was out with river conservation group, Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, and we used the drone to identify juvenile salmon trapped in pools along a dry part of the river. They were able to relocate around 500 Coho Salmon smolts that otherwise would have died from lethal water temperatures. It’s a small win but it was made possible by a unique and affordable aerial perspective.”

What are some main uses for other forms of aerial photography?

“Traditional aerial photography is generally being replaced by remote sensing from satellites. However, even the “old” technology is invaluable in trying to understand how places have changed over time. Simply being able to compare two film images from the same location that are decades apart can be a powerful tool. Researchers are able to process and string these photographs together in a timelapse to demonstrate change. A great example of this is the Google Earth Engine that will produce a timelapse of any location from the early 1980s to the late 2010s. I encourage everyone to watch their suggested locations. Audiences can view areas such as the Amazon slowly disappearing from deforestation. It is a sobering experience to see what our species is capable of doing over such a short period of human history.”

To learn more about Nick’s photography please follow his Instagram page, @pacificnorthwestco.

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