Global Forest Watch Map Recording Tree Loss in “Real Time”

An aerial photograph showing the deforestation web in the Mountains of Jambi, in Sumatra, Indonesia.A Watchful Eye on the Global Forest

A new global monitoring system, Global Forest Watch has been launched that promises “near real-time” information on deforestation around the World.  GFW uses information from hundreds of millions of satellite images, as well as data from people on the ground.  Despite a greater global awareness of the impacts of deforestation, the scale of forest loss remains significant. 

The World has lost 230 million hectares of trees between 2000 and 2012, according to data from Google and the University of Maryland.  Forest campaigners say this is the equivalent of 50 football fields of trees being cut down, every minute of every day over the past 12 years.


Monitoring Global Deforestation Online

Global Forest Watch (GFW) (GFW) is backed by Google and over 40 business and campaigning groups.  The system utilises the cloud computing power of the Google Earth Engine, the Google Maps Engine and new algorithms developed by the University of Maryland.  While high resolution images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually, data on tropical forests at a resolution of 500 metres is updated monthly.

The technology has been funded by grants from the United Kingdom, Norway and the United States governments.  Businesses have welcomed the new database, as it could help them prove that their products are sustainable.

One of the big problems in dealing with tree loss has been a lack of accurate up-to-date information.  Over the same time period as all these trees were lost, around 800,000 square kilometres of new forest was planted.  To tackle the dearth of reliable information, the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) has lead the development of GFW, using half a billion high resolution images from Nasa’s Landsat programme.


An artist's impression of NASA's Landsat Earth Observing satellite.NASA’s Landsat 8 – Changing the Way the Cards are Stacked…

The Nasa’s Landsat program is the longest continuous global record of Earth observations from space ever made.  Since its first satellite went up in the summer of 1972, Landsat has been looking at our planet.  The view of Earth that this 40-year satellite program has recorded allows scientists to see, in ways they never before imagined, how the Earth’s surface has transformed, over time.

In the 1970s, Landsat captured the first views from space of the Amazonian rainforest and continued to track the area year after year after year, giving the World an unprecedented view of systemic and rapid deforestation.  This view from space let us see an activity that was taking place in an exceptionally remote part of our World.  These now iconic-images of tropical deforestation spurred the global environmental community to rally in an unprecedented way, and resulted in worldwide attention and action.

The data-rich U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) archive built from the Landsat satellites since 1972, with more than three million images, represents the surface of Earth over a 40-year period, a story of our physical world unparalleled in the history of  science.


Global Forest Loss Over the Last 12 Years

  • A map showing Globa Forest Mapping right now.The Earth lost 2.3 million sq km of tree cover between 2000 and 2012, because of logging, fire, disease or storms.
  • But the planet also gained 800,000 sq km of new forest, meaning a net loss of 1.5 million sq km.
  • Brazil showed the best improvement of any country, cutting annual forest loss in half between 2003-04 and 2010-11.

With the price of gold skyrocketing, up to 360 % in the last 10 years, unlicensed miners began pouring into the Madre de Dios area in Peru just north of the Bolivian border.  They cleared an area equal to four-and-a-half football fields a day to make room for mines in two areas.  As a result, 12,500 acres of forest were destroyed from 2003 to 2009.

Landsat images from each of these years show that the deforestation increased at a rate of 26 % a year, according to Jennifer Swenson of Duke University, Durham, N.C.  As the location was an odd place for deforestation, teams of scientists went into the area to investigate what was happening.  What they found wasn’t just deforestation and species loss, but a health risk no one anticipated.

Miners bring mercury to their mining sites and use it to extract gold from the rocks.  During the process, the mercury vaporises, becoming airborne and finds its way into the water supply.  Biologists found that the fish in the area had exceptionally high levels of mercury in their flesh and the local people were being poisoned, not only by eating the tainted fish, but also possibly through direct exposure because tests of locks of the hair of local residents showed that the closer they were to the mines, the more mercury in their bodies.

Scientists continue to track the mining using Landsat data.  Ecologists are using their research and the Landsat images to call for action by the Peruvian government.


Using Smart Phones and GPS to Monitor Illegal Deforestation

The Global Forest Watch technology is said to be easy to use and will incorporate information showing protected areas, logging, mining and palm oil concessions and daily forest fire alerts from NASA.

The GFW will allow campaigners and local communities to upload information, pictures and videos from vulnerable forest areas around the World.

An aerial view of the mapping of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest deforestation.For governments in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, the technology could be useful in helping to enforce the laws on logging that are often flouted.  The online tool will be aimed at politicians and decision makers, but also at indigenous groups.  In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people have been using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.  An image from Brazil shows the deforestation taking place next to the lands of the Surui tribe (highlighted in pink).

When tree losses are detected, alerts can be sent out to a network of partners and citizens around the world who can take action.

Those behind the new online tool believe it could not only allow campaigners to hold large corporations to account over the use of sustainable products, but could also promote greater trust between traditionally suspicious groups.


Business Backing

GFW is also being backed by large businesses, including Nestlé and Unilever.

United_States_GFW_MapThe complex nature of forests can be seen in the southern United States (with tree losses in pink and tree gains in blue).  Suppliers of commodities such as palm oil, soy and timber products can use the online database to show that their products come from legal and licensed sources.

“Deforestation poses a material risk to businesses that rely on forest-linked crops.  Exposure to that risk has the potential to undermine the future of businesses,” said Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever.  “As we strive to increase the visibility of where the ingredients for our products come from, the launch of Global Forest Watch – a fantastic, innovative tool – will provide the information we urgently need to make the right decisions.”

“Civil society will have a tool to maintain democratic vigilance over their governments,” said Felipe Calderon, the former President of Mexico.  “The partnership we are launching will, I believe, change the current paradigm that in the fight against climate change it is corporate interests versus governments versus activists.”


Sizing Up the Impact of Narco-Deforestation

Problems caused by the narcotics trade usually start with the building of clandestine roads and airstrips in remote forests.  The number of drug-related landing strips prompted UNESCO to declare the “Rio Platano biosphere reserve in Honduras, a world heritage in danger” in 2011.  The number of larger than expected forest clearings in eastern Honduras, indicating a connection to drug trafficking.

Honduras_Deforestation_MapIn Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011.  At the same time, cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise.

“A baseline deforestation rate in this region was 20 square kilometres per year,” said lead author Dr Kendra McSweeney from Ohio State University.  “Under the narco-effect, we see over 60 square kilometres per year.  In some parts of Guatemala, the rates are even higher.  We’re talking up to 10% deforestation rates, which is just staggering.”

In both Honduras and Guatemala, these forested areas are often poorly governed. With the influx of new cash and weapons, local ranchers, oil-palm growers and land speculators are emboldened to greatly expand their activities.  The drug dealers themselves often see advantages in converting the forests into agricultural land.  Buying and clearing the forests helps launder profits, and the traffickers usually have enough political influence to ensure their titles to the land are not contested.

GFW is practical science, knowledge of things we need to watch for, to be warned of; information to help us do things better, to find a way of accommodating seven billion people on one small planet.  It describes over two generations, the human impact on Earth, and the impact of Earth on humanity.

“Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests,” said Dr Andrew Steer from WRI.

From now on, the bad guys cannot hide…


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