Big data reveals new, stark pictures of the state of our environments. It also reveals ‘bright spots’ amongst the broad pattern of decline and—crucially—the key conditions for these cases. Big data analyses could benefit the planet if tightly coupled with ongoing sustainability efforts.
This big data revolution, which encompasses techniques to capture, process, analyse and visualize large datasets in a rapid timeframe, has led to an explosion in data variety over the last five decades (Fig. 1a). Significant advances in data growth in the bio-geophysical sciences have allowed scientists to discover, analyse and understand environmental changes at micro to global scales, and separate out what is human-driven. As a consequence, the state and trends of the environment is increasingly becoming a focus of big data applications (Fig. 1b). Here, we discuss the trends emerging from these environmental analyses (including the derived data products) and propose a way forward to harness these technologies to mitigate global environmental declines.