Global Forest Watch, a new $25 million dollar, web-based tool — which was created through a partnership of the World Resources Institute (WRI), ESRI, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Google, and a slew of other environmental groups — aims to provide a “near-real time” view of deforestation (and reforestation) around the world. According to data from Google and the University of Maryland, the world has lost 2.3 million square kilometers of trees from 2000 to 2012 from logging, diseases, and storms. BBC News tells us this is the equivalent to 50 football fields of trees being lost “every minute of every day over the past 12 years.” But during the same time frame, about 800,000 square kilometers of new forest were also planted. Still, this means the world has lost forest cover equal to the size of Mongolia in little more than a decade. The world can’t keep going at this rate given only about 15 percent of the planet’s original forest cover now remains.
Since the late 1990s, WRI has led the development of the forest watch service, which “unites satellite technology, open data, and crowdsourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests.” The program uses more than half a billion high-res images from NASA’s Landsat program, which are organized with new algorithms created by the University of Maryland, and then made available for easy online access thanks to the cloud computing power of Google’s Earth and Maps engines. BBC News writes that high-res images of global tree loss and gain are updated annually while data on tropical forests is updated monthly.
The program’s ability to crowdsource information is particularly interesting. Campaigners and local communities can also submit data, pictures, and video on the ground. This picks up on an existing trend: “In Brazil, the Paiter Surui people are already using smart phones and GPS software to monitor illegal logging.”
The watch service will visualize protected areas, as well as concessions for logging, mining, and palm oil. For example, any user can look up whether a given area is protected or whether a company has the right to take down the trees there. Policymakers and regulators can now point to the map to see if laws are being followed on logging in vulnerable areas. Multinational companies like Nestle say it will enable them to better track where they supply palm oil and other ingredients. And sustainable forestry companies can better prove their products are coming from sanctioned places. Dr. Andrew Steer at WRI said: “Global Forest Watch is a near-real time monitoring platform that will fundamentally change the way people and businesses manage forests. From now on, the bad guys cannot hide and the good guys will be recognized for their stewardship.”
The world no longer has to rely on guesstimates. As Rebecca Moore, engineering manager with Google Earth, explained to Reuters: “With the exception of Brazil, none of the tropical forest countries have been able to report the state of their forests. Now it will be possible to have near real-time updates of the state of the world’s forests, open to anyone to use.”
The trick will be getting out some final kinks, writes The Christian Science Monitor. Critics of the program say it currently can’t distinguish between forests and industrial plantations, a major problem given rows of palm trees shouldn’t really be counted as a forest, given these mono-cultures provide very few ecosystem services.
Also worth reading is “Networking Nature: How Technology Is Transforming Conservation,” a phenomenal article in the past issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Conservation scientist Jon Hoekstra gives us many reasons to be optimistic about the power of new technologies. “Conservation is for the first time beginning to operate at the pace and on the scale necessary to keep up with, and even get ahead of, the planet’s most intractable environmental challenges. New technologies have given conservationists abilities that would have seemed like super powers just a few years ago.”