"Saudi Arabia is a fairly important land bridge between three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. You get a lot of birds migrating through this area that stop in different locations. If we disrupt that, obviously that will cause problems for migration patterns."
Saudi Aramco Extends GIS Business Technology into Its Conservation Work
Saudi Aramco has set a goal of having a net positive impact on biodiversity in its projects.
Planners developed maps of conservation priority areas across the kingdom.
The company has established 10 biodiversity protection areas across more than 377 square miles.
Most people recognize Saudi Arabia as the location of the world's largest sand desert—called Rub' Al Khali—and as one of the world's largest exporters of crude oil. Fewer people know the kingdom as a layover destination for rare migrating birds, or as a home for endangered or threatened mammals, reptiles, and fishes.
Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, is working to create a greater understanding of Saudi Arabia's diverse terrain and the biodiversity that it supports across six climate zones. Mountains push more than 3,000 meters into the sky along the west coast, while fertile land in the southwestern quadrant is among the country's most important ecological areas.
As the steward for oil production over about one-sixth of the country's land, Saudi Aramco has a team of specialists who use digital maps and data science to help manage operations such as exploration, drilling, and production of petroleum and natural gas. The same geographic information system (GIS) technology that supports business operations is proving valuable for conservation work on its nearly 116,000 square miles of land.
Through mapping, data science, and other efforts focused on protecting 10 of the best wildlife habitats across some 377 square miles, Saudi Aramco is extending GIS business technology to support the logistics of the natural world and ecology. In the process, the company is compiling an important body of research about the increasingly fragile ecosystem across this swath of Western Asia. This includes documenting features of wildlife habitats that are home to some 500 species—some of them unique to these territories—and threats to biodiversity because of human activities and climate change.
Saudi Aramco has set a goal of having a net positive impact on biodiversity in its projects. This means the company is working to put back more than it takes from the environment. To support those efforts, the company is working to preserve and protect quantities of land that are equal to the amount that it uses for business operations. A priority is to conserve and protect areas of high biodiversity while limiting or blocking business activities in those areas.
Toward those ends, the company needed a process for evaluating the environmental impact of new projects. Before approving exploration, drilling, and oil production projects, internal teams need to know the species living on the land. They also need easy access to information that tells them which species are threatened or endangered, often because of habitat loss or human activities such as hunting or clearing land.
As the company's operations have grown, it has also expanded its focus on conservation. Yet, planners needed tools for rapidly evaluating potential project sites. The company's GIS team designed the missing workflows. The team used ArcGIS mapping software to compile and analyze data and create interactive site conservation values maps to guide planning and decision-making. ArcGIS Spatial Analyst provided tools for modeling the kingdom's diverse terrain and working with complex datasets. With ArcGIS Image Analyst, the GIS team worked with and refined satellite imagery that became layers for the maps.
The color-coded map would become a visual reference of conservation priority areas across the kingdom. Users would click an area of a map to determine whether species that are classified as high conservation priority live in or migrate through a location.
Planners could refer to the map and, when necessary, modify business plans in ways that protect habitats and species of high priority. The map could also become a guide for future land-use planning and land preservation work aimed at protecting biodiversity.
The work to develop conservation maps occurred in two stages. Planners first developed a system by which they could identify species and their habitats. They also established a scoring system to help them determine which species were most threatened, often because of human activities or climate change. Threatened or endangered species received higher scores, identifying them as a higher conservation priority.
To identify and document wildlife habitats and species, the team incorporated data from the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia, the International Union for Conservation and Nature, and other sources. Those efforts helped to identify 732 species of vertebrates: 499 birds and 233 mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and freshwater fish.
In the second stage of the project, planners created a geodatabase, a digital filing system for managing geographic datasets such as raster images and tables, where they could also document conservation risks and other characteristics of each species. The data might include biological uniqueness, global and regional conservation status and trends, and existing range in the kingdom. For birds, researchers also looked at preferred elevation to identify habitats more precisely.
Other considerations included proximity to urban settings, the availability of water, protected area status, vegetation type, and topographic complexity. These factors would be used to create a score from 1 to 10 for each species. So far, researchers have identified 199 vertebrates as a high conservation priority, including 102 species of birds and 97 mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
Through its work in conservation, Saudi Aramco has taken major steps to demonstrate that it is committed to considering the environment, social concerns, and responsible use of natural resources in its daily operations.
The company has established 10 biodiversity protection areas across more than 377 square miles. Those territories support 500 protected species and 55 subspecies that are unique to Arabia, including the Arabian oryx. This long-horned white antelope was once common across the Arabian Peninsula. Due to habitat loss, hunting, and other threats, it was at one time classified as extinct in the wild. Today their numbers exceed 5,000, though those animals live mostly in captivity.
Sharing GIS maps and information is one more way Saudi Aramco is contributing to conservation science and the world's understanding of the kingdom's important and changing ecosystem. The company has published three manuscripts about its research in peer-reviewed journals. These include a research paper on bird rankings in Avian Conservation & Ecology and articles on terrestrial vertebrates and modeling habitat quality for priority vertebrates in the Asian Journal of Conservation Biology.
As the world's most profitable company, Saudi Aramco—through its work to preserve biodiversity and protect the natural world—sets a standard that it hopes will inspire other corporate and business leaders.
"The hope is that Saudi Aramco will set a trend in preservation at the corporate level within the kingdom as well as worldwide," Burwell said.