Biospherica

Equinox Stone, Hag's Hill, Ireland
Equinox Stone, Hag's Hill, Ireland

Biospherica is a commentary on the condition of the terrestrial biosphere, in particular vegetation. More accurately, it discusses analysis and applications of what are often referred to as “bio-geophysical data”. Unfortunately there are many barriers to exploiting  bio-geophysical data effectively. Data are spread over a number of different platforms, and analytical techniques can be quite specialised. Biospherica is about breaking down these barriers. In future these data will play a much greater role in agriculture, trading, conservation policy, carbon markets etc than it does today.

An important class of bio-geophysical data is based on reflectance of sunlight from the Earth’s surface. Solar reflectance is measured by instruments carried on board Earth observation satellites. The spectrum  (i.e. how the reflectance depends on wavelength) at a particular surface location gives information about density of live vegetation at that location. Since the 1990s there has been an explosion in the collection and archiving of such data. In fact the quantity of data collected per unit time on the Earth’s biosphere greatly exceeds the quantity collected in financial markets, where prices  of 100,000’s of financial securities are tracked and stored in real-time.

Biophysical data are not as organised or accessible as financial data, and their application less transparent. Financial data include everthing from stock trade data, to commodity option prices  or over-the-counter derivatives quotes. To extract meaningful information about the overall state of financial markets from such a large and complex dataset, stock indices such as Standard & Poors appeared long ago. Other indices have become important more recently, such as the VIX volatility index. Of course many reports and tools covering every imaginable aspect of financial markets are readily available.  Analysis of bio-geophysical data, on the other hand, is typically carried out by large public agencies, such as the US Department of Agriculture or the Joint Research Centre of the EU Commission.

One important theme of Biospherica will be to explore interesting parallels between the terrestrial biosphere and financial markets. Both are complex, non-linear systems with feedbacks, thresholds and instabilities. It is no accident that the first organised derivatives markets were in agricultural commodities, which helped participants to reduce their risk. Natural climatic variability is a major influence on vegetation and agriculture, whereas economic cycles influence financial markets. Secondly, an estimated 90% of the vegetative cover of the earth has been modified by human activity to a significant extent [1] . It could be said that the ecosystems that make up the biosphere are effectively being managed by human beings, just as a financial portfolio is managed by a fund manager.

The first (real) post in Biospherica will continue the financial market analogy with a post entitled Global Agriculture’s Bull Run.

Hag’s Hill

I want to end this post on an auspicious note, because it is the first. The image (above) was taken at 07:15 GMT 20 March 2009 in Cairn T at the Hag’s Hill, Loughcrew, County Meath, Ireland. It shows the Equinox Stone, so-called because it is illuminated for a brief period as the sun rises due east on the spring and autumn Equinoxes. The hilltop mounds at Loughcrew were built around 3400bc by Neolithic farmers.  At Cairn T, a narrow passageway leads to a small chamber containing the Equinox Stone.  The irradiant glow from the leaf-like solar symbol at Loughcrew is a bewitching sight. We don’t know the precise symbolism that was intended by this light show. However it is easy to believe that it signified the start of the growing season at this northerly latitude (54o ). 5,000 years ago it must have appeared a very auspicious event, as it still does today.

[1]Anthropogenic Biomes of the World, Ellis and Ramankutty