Forests are key to maintaining biodiversity and sucking up the carbon emissions that cause climate change. And yet every year the world loses millions more trees. Today, only about 15% of original forest remains intact. The rest has been degraded or destroyed by logging, fire, agriculture, and other causes.
A powerful new tool gives a near-real-time view of this deforestation process and aims to improve decision-making by governments, environmental groups, and companies that deal in forestry products. It’s called Global Forest Watch, and it could be a useful in the fight to save remaining forests.
“It’s a dynamic online foresting monitoring and alert system that’s designed for everyone everywhere to make better decisions about how forests are managed, conserved, and used,” says Nigel Sizer, at the World Resources Institute, which is co-ordinating the project.
Global Forest Watch is a mapping tool that lets users see forest-cover change for any location. So, say you’re interested in a particular part of Borneo. You can look up whether a company has the right to exploit the area or whether it’s preserved, and see what changes there have been since the year 2000. You can also draw a shape on the map and receive email alerts when something in that space changes.
The tool makes use of historical satellite imagery and is updated daily with new data. In addition, it’s also set up for crowdsourcing. If you’re on the ground, you can report recent activity.
Forty groups, including WRI, Google, and the University of Maryland, collaborated on the project. Google provided the computing power, in the shape of 10,000 computers that make up the Google Earth Engine. It crunched through 700,000 images for 2000-2012 from the Landsat Project, an open archive of satellite data.
Andrew Steer, president of the W.R.I., says forestry preservation has been hampered by a lack of up-to-date, comprehensive information. “The problem to date hasn’t been a lack of goodwill or a lack of nice regulations or laws. It’s been, among other things, the lack of an ability to know what’s going on,” he says. With a bit of luck, Global Forest Watch should help fill in a few blanks, and save a few more trees from oblivion.