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A New NASA Tool Tracks The Slow Destruction Of Our Trees

All over the world, forests are disappearing as they are cut down to help fuel human development—often in places where no one is monitoring. Now a project using NASA satellites can help alert us to when the damage needs to be stopped.

It’s the holy grail for those hunting illegal logging: a satellite tool to find deforestation anywhere in the world around the clock. Now they have it.

NASA researchers at Ames laboratory in California teamed up with the environmental news and watchdog site, Mongabay, to create the tool: the Global Forest Disturbance Alert system. Every three months, the system compiles data from the entire Earths’ surface for signs of forest loss down to five square kilometers. Anyone can get this free, timely comprehensive look at the 50,000 square miles of forest lost each year.

"I’m hoping the tool can help journalists and activists pinpoint areas where deforestation is occurring," says Rhett Butler, the founder and editor-in-chief of Mongabay.

The program’s first pilot through Mongabay’s Indonesian website will recruit local journalists to look for forest disturbance hotspots. About 50 freelancers are scheduled to help monitor deforestation across the Indonesian archipelago. Soon, text message alerts will be added to alert anyone when forest cover is changing somewhere in the world.

"We hope that this network will enable us to look into deforestation hotspots … to learn what is actually happening on the ground: Is the deforestation legal? Is there social conflict?" says Butler. "We’re excited about the potential this system has for improving transparency around land use."

Butler gave an interview by email this month (edited for length) describing what’s next for monitoring the world’s dwindling forests.

Co.Exist: Why wasn’t this done before? Was it primarily technical challenges or something else?

Butler: That’s what I asked too. I’m still not sure, but every year computing power gets better and cheaper, so that’s probably one reason. There’s also renewed interest in forests as massive stores of carbon. Thus, reducing deforestation is increasingly seen as a way to contribute to efforts to mitigate climate change.

Earlier this year, NASA reached out to me with an interesting product that had just been developed by the CASA ecosystem modeling team at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Called the "Quarterly Indicator of Cover Change," the product used satellite data from the MODIS sensor to compare changes in forest vegetation index images on a global scale. It seemed like a great opportunity to develop a quarterly "deforestation" alert tool.

What are you tracking exactly?

[We] measures changes in vegetation cover on a quarterly basis. The tool was developed for Mongabay by researchers at NASA Ames. It only picks up large-scale change, like new plantations or clear-cutting, rather than smallholder activity (with a resolution of 5 KM).

We plan to roll out an alert system which would enable a user to subscribe for a regency, protected area, province, or the entire country, and then be alerted if deforestation is detected. We’re also hoping to make the tool monthly, rather than quarterly in the near future.

What has surprised you so far about the results? Does it match the "official" reports/statistics?

We’re still testing this out but so far the alerts are coming from areas I would expect, like northern Myanmar, Indonesian Borneo and New Guinea (e.g. near an area where large-scale plantation development is occurring), Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea. These places are experiencing high rates of forest conversion. In many parts of the world, there aren’t any "official" deforestation estimates on a regular basis—the closest thing to that are the reports put out by the FAO, which come every 5 years. So GloF-DAS can provide a clue on what’s happening in the interim.

One thing that surprised me initially but now makes sense, is the number of alerts coming from very cold regions like the Himalayas, Patagonia, Alaska, Western and Eastern Canada, and Scandinavia. What the system is detecting is retreat of winter ice and snow in forest areas. A similar thing occasionally happens on a smaller scale along meandering rivers, when river channels shift and islands disappear. That’s why we ultimately called the tool a "forest disturbance" system rather than a "deforestation" system.

Have you (or anyone) been able to respond to specific deforestation reports form the tools or is it mainly a reporting device for now?

We were recently approached by an NGO that is looking into using the system to see whether its corporate partners are abiding by an internal "zero deforestation" commitment. In Indonesia we now have a network of a dozen correspondents across the archipelago who are starting to use the alerts to develop story ideas. We’ve also been contacted by officials in a few countries who say they are using the tool. Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry is one.

What impact would you ultimately like to see this tool have on deforestation in Indonesia and elsewhere?

I’d like to see land use become more transparent. What’s happening, who’s doing it. That can inform debate on what’s the best use of resources.