FoI Public Event: 2nd July 2021 FESTIVAL OF IDEAS Turning Disaster into Opportunity Professor Paul Aplin, Edge Hill University

2nd Jul 2021, 5:00pm - 6:30pm


Global health has taken centre stage over the past year – but what impact has the pandemic had on environmental health? In the final Festival of Ideas event, we’re looking ahead to the future to ask whether in the midst of disaster lies opportunity. Edge Hill experts will talk about their latest research and will finish the session with a quiz to test your environmental know-how.


COVID has been catastrophic for humankind, but what about the environment? The pandemic’s effects are felt here too, and worrying news has recently emerged about the loss of core funding for environmental protection, meaning for instance reduced resources to tackle poaching. This is doubly worrying given the role of the illegal wildlife trade in the emergence of COVID itself. However, it is not all bad news and alert news-watchers might recall satellite images showing markedly improved air quality during the first, severe lockdown. So there may be an opportunity here.

This year, the UK hosts COP 26, the UN’s major Climate Change event, though COVID has already exerted its influence here too, pushing the conference back a year from 2020. Nonetheless, another opportunity? Elsewhere, major political change means sights are being re-set on the environment, but now in a good way. Also the youth(?) environment movement showing a genuine will to make change. More opportunity. Never before has there been such opportunity for effecting meaningful environmental change, wholesale renewal of the environmental agenda. Everyone can contribute and here is just one example from Edge Hill University’s STEM community…


The climate emergency and human activities are exerting considerable pressure on savannah environments, leading to their change and often degradation. Effective savannah conservation requires, as a first step, accurate land cover information over large areas. Sophisticated geospatial satellite image data are now widely available, free of charge and suitable for large-scale environmental monitoring. Such large data sets, though, necessitate automated analysis; thus recent developments in machine learning analysis have seen rapid exploitation by the geospatial community and wide use in environmental studies.

Here, we outline Edge Hill University research in southern African to monitor change in the spatial distributions of savannah flora, especially woody and grassy cover, and show how change is linked to anthropogenic processes and climate variables. This integrated research initiative draws on expertise from staff members in Geography, Biology and Computer Science.


Though remote sensing research, by definition, can be done from afar – a handy characteristic in a time of pandemic lockdown – fieldwork sampling is valuable in providing a reference against which computer-based results are verified. In the present case, fieldwork, related to mega-herbivore presence in savannah grazing lawns, involved identifying animal dung. Thus, we are delighted to conclude the session with our ‘Great African Dung Quiz’ (aka ‘You Don’t Know Sh*t!’).

This event takes place online.

Organised by the Data Science Research Centre, this event is part of Edge Hill University’s annual Festival of Ideas. The Festival is programmed by the University’s three Research Institutes, ISR, ICE and HRI, and this year they are joined by the Data Science Research Centre to explore the theme of Renewal: Creativity, Community, Curiosity’.

Date: Friday 2nd July 2021

17.15 Registration
17.30 Event start
18.30 Event end

Venue: Online (a secure link will be distributed following registration).


Paul Aplin
Paul is Professor of Geography at Edge Hill University, in post since 2015 after 15 years at the University of Nottingham. He is an expert in using satellite imagery for environmental monitoring and his research in land cover classification has been applied in many environmental ecosystems, including over 20 years work in southern African savannahs. He has engaged widely in international academic service, serving as Chairman of the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, Book Series Editor for the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, and he led the Natural Environmental Research Council’s major Earth Observation Technology Cluster knowledge exchange initiative. Currently, he is on the Steering Committee of the University’s Data Science Research Centre, and is Co-Leader of the new University SustainNET initiative.