Digital Twins for Nature Conservation: Misconceptions, Challenges and Opportunities

 Digital Twins for Nature Conservation: Misconceptions, Challenges and Opportunities

Digital twins, once confined to industries like manufacturing and engineering, are now finding their way into the realm of nature conservation. Anna Davison, a PhD Candidate at Wageningen University & Research, is at the forefront of exploring the potential of digital twins for biodiversity monitoring. In this article, we delve into the concept of digital twins, dispel misconceptions, explore their feasibility for nature conservation, examine the challenges, discuss their perspectives, and highlight how they can assist decision-makers in safeguarding our natural ecosystems.

Anna Davison, a PhD Candidate at Wageningen University & Research, is at the forefront of exploring the potential of digital twins for biodiversity monitoring /  Photo by Kacia Rutkoŭskaja

What are digital twins?

Digital twins are virtual replicas or models of real-world objects, systems, or processes. They are closely connected to their physical counterparts through real-time data, which updates the virtual twin. These digital replicas can simulate the behaviour, characteristics, and interactions of the physical entities in real-time, providing valuable insights and information.

Anna Davison states, “The power of digital twins lies in their ability to mobilise and utilise vast amounts of knowledge and data in a constantly accessible and usable format. It is a valuable resource for decision-makers, enabling them to take proactive measures and respond effectively to environmental challenges”.

Digital Twins for Nature: How Does it Work?

Anna Davison emphasises that digital twins have immense potential to revolutionise nature monitoring and conservation. By combining expert knowledge, historical data and existing ecological models with real-time data, comprehensive digital twins can be developed for biodiversity monitoring. These virtual replicas integrate diverse data sources, such as satellite observations and on-site measurements, to create a real-time representation of ecosystems, species, and environmental processes. They enable the monitoring of biodiversity trends and predictions for future conservation strategies.

Anna explains, “By integrating diverse datasets with existing ecological models and real-time data, digital twins can give us a more holistic view of the natural environment.”

Image credit: Freepik 

Misconceptions about Digital Twins

One common misconception surrounding digital twins is that they are overly complex and exclusively applicable to specific industries. However, Anna clarifies, “There is a misconception that digital twins are inherently intricate and challenging to implement. In reality, digital twins can be designed to be user-friendly and accessible, enabling decision-makers to extract valuable information in a simplified manner.”

Digital Twins for Nature: Challenges Ahead

Developing and implementing digital twins for nature conservation come with their own set of challenges. Data availability and accessibility are primary concerns, as biodiversity monitoring relies on extensive and diverse datasets. Collaboration and data sharing among researchers and organisations become crucial in overcoming this challenge.

Anna highlights another challenge: “The complexity and uncertainty of ecological systems require accurate modelling and validation. We must ensure that the digital twin models accurately reflect the dynamics of real-world ecosystems and species interactions. This requires collaboration between domain experts and data scientists to refine and validate the models.”

Image credit: Freepik

Perspectives of Digital Twins for Nature and Criteria of Success

The prospects for digital twins in nature conservation are promising. Successful digital twins for nature must meet specific criteria. Scientific accuracy and validation against real-world data are fundamental. User-friendliness, scalability, and adaptability are essential to ensure easy access and interpretation of information at different spatial and temporal scales.

Anna states, “Digital twins should be designed based on user needs. They should provide intuitive interfaces, allowing decision-makers and stakeholders to navigate and interpret the data easily. Scalability is also crucial, as digital twins should be able to accommodate changes and expansions in the scope of monitoring efforts.”

The Role of Digital Twins in Decision Making

According to Anna, digital twins for nature provide decision-makers with real-time and predictive information about ecosystems, species, and environmental processes. By visualising trends, identifying threats, and highlighting conservation hotspots, decision-makers can make informed choices and implement effective conservation strategies. She emphasises the importance of utilising digital twins to bridge the gap between scientific research and decision-making, stating, “Digital twins serve as powerful tools for decision-makers, enabling them to understand complex ecological systems and take proactive steps towards nature conservation.”

Digital Twins in Action

Digital twins are utilised in several noteworthy projects, showcasing their potential impact on nature conservation and environmental management.

One such project is Nature FIRST, funded by the European Commission. Nature FIRST aims to develop preventive capabilities for nature conservation by integrating ecology sciences, environmental forensics, and environmental observations. Using digital twins, Nature FIRST seeks to create model-driven, continuous ecosystem monitoring beyond simple species counts. These digital twins serve as a means for learning, improving monitoring models, and translating environmental observations into actionable information for site managers and policymakers.

Another significant initiative is the Iliad Digital Twins of the Ocean, an EU-funded project capitalising on two decades of investments in the blue economy. The project aims to establish interoperable, data-intensive, and cost-effective digital twins of the ocean. By leveraging advanced computing infrastructures and diverse Earth observation data, the Iliad project enables seamless communication between real-world systems and models. Through semantic information and intuitive discovery, the project facilitates a comprehensive understanding of the ocean ecosystem and contributes to a sustainable ocean economy.

These projects highlight the transformative potential of digital twins in revolutionising nature conservation and environmental management. By harnessing the power of technology, data integration, and modelling, digital twins offer innovative solutions for informed decision-making and proactive conservation efforts. As we embrace the possibilities of the digital age, the utilisation of digital twins holds promise for the preservation and sustainable management of our natural world.

Featured image credit: Freepik

Kacia Rutkoŭskaja

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