Study uses photo-sharing to evaluate ecosystems
Scientists have confirmed what people living and holidaying in Cornwall have long known – that it is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the world.
Researchers at the University of Exeter have applied a pioneering new way of measuring the aesthetic value of ecosystems. And, according to their findings, Cornwall's beautiful rugged coastline has come out top of the charts.
The researchers at the university's Environment and Sustainability Institute developed the unique method, which analyses and counts images uploaded to an online photo-sharing site.
They discovered that areas most highly valued for their natural beauty generate hotspots of photographer activity. In Cornwall, they found areas in which large numbers of people took photographs of the landscape and uploaded them to the site. These included picture-postcard locations like Kynance Cove on the Lizard, Port Isaac, the setting for ITV hit series Doc Martin, Gwithian Beach, the surfers paradise near Hayle, and Perranporth and Constantine Bay.
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Dr Stefano Casalegno, of the University of Exeter, said looking at how many people shared their photos of picturesque environments had proved very effective.
It also offered potential for future study, he added. "The massive amount of data available online, and our capacity to query and analyse it for spatial ecological purposes, has huge and unexplored potential. We explored this specific photo sharing application and found it a very effective method of measuring aesthetic value."
The value of ecosystems – communities of living organisms existing with the non-living environment – is often measured in terms of the services they provide for humans. These can include providing food, regulating climate and offering recreational and cultural benefits.
Previous methods of quantifying the cultural benefits of ecosystems have taken into account the numbers of visitors to an area, tourist attractions, expenditure as well as the number of days spent fishing.
The more difficult-to-measure value of an area's beauty has so far only been mapped using indirect methods. The new system developed at Exeter University offers a direct way to spatially quantify hotspots of photographer activity and the related aesthetic value of ecosystems.
Dr Casalegno said it would now be used to determine the cultural aesthetic value of ecosystems as part of wider monitoring projects.