Microsoft wants to save 60% of Earth’s plants

Posted by Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling

Biodiversity is one of Planet Earth’s greatest strengths. Ecosystems depend on many different plants and animals to stay healthy. When species go extinct, it’s like removing links from a chain. Too many weaknesses, and the entire system could fall apart.

New research from Microsoft aims to show that while it’s an immense challenge, it’s possible to protect over 60 percent of Earth’s plant species from vanishing into the ether.

In partnership with Duke University and North Carolina State University, Microsoft researchers used computer algorithms to identify the smallest set of regions worldwide that could contain the largest numbers of plant species. The result, they say, is a model showing how putting just 17 percent of the planet’s land surface off limits to human contamination could save a huge number of important plant species.

microsoft plant conservation

Image via Microsoft Research

According to study results published recently in the journal Science, a more efficient method for choosing which areas to protect could reduce friction with polluters while preserving essential biodiversity. To test this theory, Microsoft researchersused computer algorithms to identify the smallest set of regions worldwide that could contain the largest numbers of plant species.

To identify which of Earth’s regions contain the highest concentrations of endemic species, relative to their geographic size, the researchers analyzed data on more than 100,000 different species of flowering plants, compiled by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. They found that “certain areas of the planet, including the Caribbean, Central America and regions of Africa, have higher concentrations of endemic species than others, which means that conservation efforts in those locations can have a far-reaching impact,” reports the Microsoft Blog.

Based on their computations, Clinton N. Jenkins, a research scholar at North Carolina State University, created a color-coded global map identifying high-priority regions for plant conservation, ranked by endemic species density (see above).

Because we can’t create new land or move entire populations of rare plants, the research provides a compelling reason to increase protections in areas that are especially biodiverse. True, for those of us who want to save “the whole planet” turning over 80 percent of the globe over to big polluters seems like surrender, but there’s always value in being pragmatic. If we can’t do it all, let’s do as much as we can.

“What we did in our study highlighted broad regions of the world that are important for the conservation community to focus on, but we can’t simply just protect an entire country,” said Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Research Cambridge. “Instead, we have to use more nuanced data and insights within those places to figure out the optimal places to protect. This includes thinking about the current and future threats to an area’s biodiversity, the cost of conserving it, the probability of success, and the various conservation options available.”

Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling