It what could be a critical development in helping tropical countries monitor deforestation, Google has unveiled a partnership with scientists using advanced remote sensing technology to rapidly analyze and map forest cover in extremely high resolution. The effort could help countries detect deforestation shortly after it occurs making it easier to prevent further forest clearing.
Deforestation and forest degradation is a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. It is also a threat to biodiversity, indigenous cultures, and critical ecosystem services like rainfall provision and flood control. Thus a newly proposed mechanism that aims to slow deforestation by compensating countries and landowners for protecting forests has won wide support at climate talks in Copenhagen. But to qualify for payments under Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), countries must be able to quantify reductions in deforestation against a historical baseline — a tall order for most countries (not even wealthy countries like Australia and Canada provide accurate data on their forests). Therefore a tool that enables countries to measure past deforestation and track forest disturbance and loss shortly after it occurs would be of great value in efforts to fight climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.
Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil, from 1975 to 2001. Landsat images courtesy USGS.
Two institutions have developed technologies that come a long way towards making this tool a reality: the Carnegie Institute for Science’s CLASlite system (led by Greg Asner), which uses satellite imagery and laser deployed from airplanes (airborne Light Detection and Ranging – LiDAR) to build high-resolution, 3-D maps of forests that can measure logging and other disturbance; and Imazon’s Sistema de Alerta de Deforestation (SAD) (led by Carlos Souza), which uses satellite imagery to rapidly detect and report deforestation. Now through a prototype project, Google brings the power of these technologies online, harnessing its massive computing cloud.
CLASlite online: This shows deforestation and degradation in Rondonia, Brazil
from 1986-2008, with the red indicating recent activity.
SAD online: The red “hotspots” indicate deforestation
that has happened within the last 30 days. The result of running SAD in a region of recent deforestation pressure in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
“With this technology, it’s now possible for scientists to analyze raw satellite imagery data and extract meaningful information about the world’s forests, such as locations and measurements of deforestation or even regeneration of a forest,” wrote Rebecca Moore and Amy Luers in a blog post announcing the partnership.
“By providing computational horsepower and easy access to massive data sets, this new technology will dramatically lower the cost and complexity for tropical nations to monitor their forests using CLASlite and other forest analysis programs,” added Luers in a separate statement.
This CLASlite image of the Amazon Basin shows deforested regions in pink and blue, and intact forests in green.
The technology is so far only available for the Amazon and the Andes region in South America, but it may someday be expanded to the Congo basin, other parts of Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Eventually the system could be truly global with near real-time monitoring of forest cover (as is currently available with fire-tracking).
For more on how remote sensing can help save forests and wildlife, please see How satellites are used in conservation.
(11/29/2009) A new handbook lays out the methodology for cultural mapping, providing indigenous groups with a powerful tool for defending their land and culture, while enabling them to benefit from some 21st century advancements. Cultural mapping may also facilitate indigenous efforts to win recognition and compensation under a proposed scheme to mitigate climate change through forest conservation. The scheme—known as REDD for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation—will be a central topic of discussion at next month’s climate talks in Copenhagen, but concerns remain that it could fail to deliver benefits to forest dwellers.
(04/13/2009) In October 2008 scientists with the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew discovered a host of previously unknown species in a remote highland forest in Mozambique. The find was no accident: three years earlier, conservationist Julian Bayliss identified the site—Mount Mabu—using Google Earth, a tool that’s rapidly becoming a critical part of conservation efforts around the world. As the discovery in Mozambique suggests, remote sensing is being used for a bewildering array of applications, from monitoring sea ice to detecting deforestation to tracking wildlife. The number of uses grows as the technology matures and becomes more widely available. Google Earth may represent a critical point, bringing the power of remote sensing to the masses and allowing anyone with an Internet connection to attach data to a geographic representation of Earth.
(03/31/2009) Satellites have long been used to detect and monitor environmental change, but capabilities have vastly improved since the early 1970s when Landsat images were first revealed to the public. Today Google Earth has democratized the availability of satellite imagery, putting high resolution images of the planet within reach of anyone with access to the Internet. In the process, Google Earth has emerged as potent tool for conservation, allowing scientists, activists, and even the general public to create compelling presentations that reach and engage the masses. One of the more prolific developers of Google Earth conservation applications is David Tryse. Neither a scientist nor a formal conservationist, Tryse’s concern for the welfare of the planet led him develop a KML for the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, an initiative to promote awareness of and generating conservation funding for 100 of the world’s rarest species. The KML allows people to surf the planet to see photos of endangered species, information about their habitat, and the threats they face. Tryse has since developed a deforestation tracking application, a KML that highlights hydroelectric threats to Borneo’s rivers, and oil spills and is working on a new tool that will make it even easier for people to create visualizations on Google Earth. Tryse believes the development of Google Earth is a watershed moment for conservation and the environmental movement.
(03/29/2009) Armed with vivid images from space and remote sensing data, scientists, environmentalists, and armchair conservationists are now tracking threats to the planet and making the information available to anyone with an Internet connection.
(03/29/2009) Given that deforestation accounts for nearly one fifth of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, reducing forest clearing and degradation is increasingly seen as an critical component to any framework addressing climate change. By some estimates, a mechanism that compensates countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) could funnel billions of dollars per year towards forest conservation. However the effectiveness of such a mechanism will hinge on the quality of data. Effective mapping and monitoring of forest carbon stores is absolutely key to any mechanism that compensates countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
(12/04/2008) A tool for monitoring tropical deforestation has gotten a boost from the one of the world’s largest supporters of Amazon conservation. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology with a $1.6-million grant to expand and improve its tropical forest monitoring tool known as the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System Lite (CLASLite).
(03/26/2008) Remote sensing is increasingly used as a tool for conservation management. Beyond traditional satellite imagery popularized by Google Earth, new sensing applications are allowing researchers located anywhere in the world to track fires, illegal logging and mining, and deforestation in some of Earth’s most isolated regions using a computer or handheld device. The Fire Alert System is one example of an application that is harnessing the power of satellites to deliver key data to conservation managers. Developed by Madagascar’s ministry of Environment, the International Resources Group, conservation International using data from the University of Maryland and NASA, the Fire Alert System enables near real-time monitoring of fires anywhere on the island of Madagascar, a hotspot of biological diversity. The system, which sends subscribers regular email alerts on newly-detected burning, will eventually be expanded to include all the world’s protected areas, allowing managers to detect not only fires but potentially related activities like road building, logging, and even hunting.
(02/27/2008) Policymakers, conservationists and scientists have high hopes that REDD, a mechanism for compensating countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, will spur a massive flow of funds to tropical countries, helping preserve rainforests and delivering economic benefits to impoverished rural communities. To date, one of the biggest hurdles for the initiative has been establishing a baseline for deforestation rates — in order to compensate countries for “avoided deforestation” it first must be known how much forest the country has been losing on a historical basis. Until now, with some notable exceptions, this data was based largely on spotty satellite assessment and surveys of national forestry departments by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
(12/05/2007) Satellite monitoring will play a critical role in any agreement that compensates tropical countries for preserving their forests, such as “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD) mechanisms currently under discussion at UN climate talks in Bali. Released Tuesday, a new study, “New Eyes in the Sky: Cloud-Free Tropical Forest Monitoring for REDD with the Japanese Advanced Land Observation Satellite (ALOS)”, details significant advancements in the field of remote sensing of forests.