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Humans are a conflicted species. Orbiting our tiny blue planet are 170 million small particles and 29,000 larger chunks of debris from satellites and rocket fragments. There is so much junk out there that it’s currently obscuring the visibility of earth from space. The irony is that most of these objects were launched to study the earth and keep an eye on it.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” –Steve Jobs

There’s no question that technology has stretched the limits of the planet’s carrying capacity and separated many people from the natural world. On the flipside, technology has also given us a clearer understanding of climate change, amazing advances in alternative energy, and the prospect of a greener future. In some circles, technology is even helping people reconnect with the natural world, fuelling a new desire to get outside and protect nature’s amazing diversity.

Recent developments in technology are helping us interact with nature like never before. Here are a few ways that people are using the tools at their fingertips to launch a new relationship.

There's an App for That

Gone are the days of bulky field guides. Now you can take a photo of a leaf and get instant identification using apps like Leafsnap, carry every Audubon field guide in your pocket using Audubon’s apps, identify scat and tracks using MyNature Animal Tracks, and become a pro birder using a variety of different birding identification apps. Some birdsong apps are so great that some people have been using them to lure birds into view, but think twice before interfering in a bird’s life. This can cause them to stop feeding their young. Instead, impress your friends with your amazing knowledge of birdcalls!

You can also be an active participant as a citizen scientist by tracking wildlife numbers with the National Wildlife Federation’s WildObs Observer app for the Wildlife Watch program or the Project Noah app. Citizen science is crowdsourced data gathering for large-scale research projects, and using an app for that has got to be one of the easiest way to help.

It’s also easy to be more involved in our national parks using Park Wildlife and Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder. These apps will help you find your nearest park, review available activities, and gather park fees. Parks Canada also offers a Canadian set of apps including Learn to Camp, park-specific guided tour apps, and Photo Missions, an app for kids. If you want more specific information on hikes in any country, there are a variety of trail apps to help you find them.

Devices for Serious Hikers

There are several apps for backpacking and hiking, including GPS tracking trail maps that come at a reasonable price. These include Trails, Backpacker GPS, and Trail Maps by National Geographic, and Gaia GPS, which allows you to find or create a trail with a topographical map and download it for the backcountry.

If you would rather not rely on your phone to keep you safe in the boonies, you could invest in a decent hiking watch with a GPS receiver which will calibrate the barometer for short-term trends in air pressure. Even more importantly, the watch will let you import hiking routes and points of interest so that the watch can direct you where to go.

If a watch isn’t your style or is outside your price range, a handheld GPS device can be a reasonable investment. These have a larger screen with a color map, larger buttons for when you are wearing gloves, are more durable and water-resistant and have a longer battery life than a watch. Just like watches, most of these have a barometric altimeter so that you know your altitude even if you lose GPS signal.

Don’t forget to invest in a good water filter for the trail, like the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter. Pack less water or none at all if you have this amazing invention, which kills nearly 100% of bacteria and 99% of protozoa, including E. coli, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The LifeStraw technology is unique, extremely portable, and has been recognized by several innovation awards.

Nature on the Net

While technology can help you get out in nature, nature is also on technology. Animals and species have hashtags, livefeeds and social media profiles to help you keep in touch.

You can help save the starfish by participating in a citizen science project to track an illness that is mysteriously killing starfish all over the world. If you are at the beach and you see a starfish washed up on the shore, use #sickstarfish to note the location, and even though this project is old news, citizens continue to use the hashtag as the illness continues. Instagram has also become a nature-lovers social experience, using hashtags to connect people to locations and natural phenomenon.

Hundreds of sharks are on Twitter via Surf Life Saving Western Australia (@SLSWA). Each shark is fitted with a GPS tracker and when it comes within a half mile of a beach, SLSWA auto-tweets the location. And while Smokey the Bear isn’t truly a part of nature, he does have his own twitter account @smokey_bear that shares forest fire prevention information and vintage Smokey posters. You can also learn the history of the real Smokey, an orphan cub saved from a fire in New Mexico in 1950.

To get really personal with nature online, one of the best ways is with a webcam. Popularized by the fascinating eagle cams pointed at eagle’s nests, these originally showed still images that updated every few minutes. Today there are many nest cams that run livestream video and capture exciting events like eggs hatching, baby eagles being fed, and everything else you would want to see live from an eagle’s nest. If eagles aren’t your thing, there are cameras for African watering holes and game reserves, owl and falcon nests, whale watching, bats, lion feeding stations and even underwater scuba cams.

For children looking to better understand African animals, try the National Geographic Wild Safari Live. Twice a day scientists livestream their forays into the African savannah and other habitats, answering questions posed to them by people from all over the world in real time.

The Bigger Picture: Using Technology to Protect Nature

While apps, watches, gadgets, and social media can help you connect with the great outdoors, technology is also being used every day to protect and study our planet. One of the most important aspects of this shift has become accessibility to drones by indigenous tribes in South America and non-profits in Africa. Drones are hyped as a tech revolution, but they are a simple, low-cost technology for accurate and instant surveillance.

The Air Shepherd Program run by the Lindbergh Foundation uses a GPS-navigated drone with daylight and infrared cameras to find rhino poachers in South Africa, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The drones track and find poachers silently, and operators are able to immediately deploy nearby rangers and intercept these killers before they can strike.

“It’s not that we don’t understand technology. We can drive cars and motorbikes and we can use computers. But we want to do things our way, the Ka’apor way.” –Miraté, Ka’apor Forest Guardian

In Guyana, a tiny country just north of Brazil, mining and forestry activities are quickly destroying the Amazon rainforest. A group of indigenous people known as the Wapichan originally started by sending people into the jungle to document the deforestation of their traditional lands using GPS and smartphones. In 2016 they watched YouTube videos and collaborated online with California organization Digital Democracy. Without access to any of the parts and tools, they innovated using what they had to build a drone that can carry a donated GoPro. This device takes a photo every two seconds and gets into previously inaccessible areas using open-source flight-tracking software. They discovered proof of illegal logging and pollution leaking from mines into their water source, which they can now take to the government.

This kind of success with technology has been repeated in other countries. The Ka’apor people from Brazil stationed wildlife cameras to catch illegal logging and report it to the government with visual proof. Miraté, one of the tribe’s forest guardians, described their relationship with technology: “It’s not that we don’t understand technology. We can drive cars and motorbikes and we can use computers. But we want to do things our way, the Ka’apor way.” We can employ the same philosophy to finding balance with technology in our own society.

A Starting Place for Change

While the technological revolution has presented us with many challenges, it also provides us with an ever-increasing measure of hope. Technology can bring us into a close relationship with nature as a tool to teach, guide and protect our fragile world. Perhaps we can find a way to bring nature and technology together into something better than anything humanity has ever experienced. Could it start with an app?