20 Nov 2018 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Understanding the ecosystems of Spain’s Doñana National Park

Ruben Rodriguez Olivares EBD-CSIC

Doñana National Park in southwestern Spain contains one of the largest wetlands in Western Europe. Lying within the estuary of the Guadalquivir River, the park covers over 110,000 hectares and includes dunes, marshes, temporary ponds, Mediterranean scrub and pine forests.

Over 200 endemic and endangered species of plants and animals live in the park, many of them associated with its aquatic habitats. Doñana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is critical for the survival of many migratory bird populations: over 300 different species of birds can be sighted within the park boundaries, including over 100 species that are directly dependent on the wetlands. Hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers and other ecotourists come every year from all over Europe and beyond to admire the unique wildlife Doñana harbours.

Despite its importance and popularity, the management of Doñana National Park remains a challenge.

Photo by Ruben Rodriguez Olivares EBD-CSIC

Applying the top-down approach

Surprisingly, the answer has come from space. A European Union-funded project, supported by UN Environment and many other partners, has been using satellite images to manage the park’s ecosystem. The resulting Earth Observation tools help assess the impact of climate change and pollution, and inform protection policies.

“Remote sensing provides the technology to monitor water levels of the Doñana marshes with more accuracy, quicker, cheaper and in a safer way for rangers,” says José Juan Chans, Manager of Doñana National Park.

The innovative ECOPOTENTIAL project uses satellite imagery and ecosystem modelling in 25 protected areas in Europe (as well as Kenya, the Caribbean and Israel) to address climate change and other threats to ecosystems.

Photo by Eloy Revilla

“Protected area managers protect immeasurable value for humanity. UN Environment and its partners in the ECOPOTENTIAL project are creating tools that are tailored to the needs of park rangers, allowing for effective science-based management,” says UN Environment ecosystems expert Magnus Andresen. 

The park’s amazing waterbird diversity is the result of the variety of habitats and the dynamic changes that take place every year in Doñana. The size and depth of the wetlands vary greatly from year to year, driven principally by varying rainfall. Wetland flooding starts in September. In late spring, evaporation becomes the most important factor influencing water levels, and most of the marshes are completely dry by the end of July.

The different water depths, flood duration, chemical composition, vegetation cover and soil types lead to very diverse flora and fauna and create attractive landscapes for waterbirds and humans.

"Remote sensing is an invaluable tool to monitor the effect of the conflicting demands on water in the Doñana ecosystem," says Javier Bustamante, a researcher with the Doñana Biological Station at the Spanish National Research Council.

Photo by Ruben Rodriguez Olivares EBD-CSIC


Flooding variations mapped

The ECOPOTENTIAL project combines traditional bird monitoring data with Earth Observations to gain a better understanding of how bird occurrence is related to wetland features.

Variations in flooding are mapped, and seasonal and inter-annual variations are monitored. Satellite images, correctly interpreted based on the knowledge gained from field data, are used for management purposes and to help conserve endangered species.

Modifications in the wetland structure due to processes such as sedimentation or variable flooding are assessed to estimate the future impacts of climate change and the effects of implementing different management options.

Funding for this project comes from Horizon 2020, under grant agreement No 6417. Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly 80 billion euros of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money has attracted so far.

For further information please contact Magnus Andresen