Google Offers a View into Forest Growth—or Loss—in Real Time

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By Gloria Gonzalez

The lack of reliable data on forests has long been a major challenge in the battle against deforestation. But a new tool powered by Google aims to provide real-time information on forest clearing and empower local communities and other stakeholders to fight back.

24 February 2014 | If a tree falls in the forest, not only can you hear it, now you can actually see it in real time, thanks to a new, freely accessible tool called Global Forest Watch.

The world has lost 230 million hectares of tree cover from 2000 to 2012, according to data compiled by the University of Maryland (UM) and Google. In an effort to reverse this “spiral of destruction,” a coalition of more than 40 partners – led by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and including UM and Google – have jointly launched Global Forest Watch, a new online forest monitoring and alert system that utilizes the most recent satellite data available.

“This will be a revolution in global forest management,” said Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico, at a February 20 launch event at the Newseum in Washington DC.

Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico, spoke about Global Forest Watch in DC.

Global Forest Watch uses cutting-edge algorithms to employ satellite technology and cloud computing in identifying where trees are growing and disappearing. The data can be viewed and analyzed within seconds, a major improvement from the years it previously would have taken to process the information.

People can see where forest clearing is happening almost immediately and sign up for automatic alerts that would allow them to take action when forest loss is detected, prompting law enforcement to intervene in illegal logging operations. In addition, businesses purchasing commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef can use the tool to see if suppliers are clearing forests that they committed to preserving.

 “I think what this tool does is address one of those major missing elements: our need for reliable, real-time, accessible information on what is happening in the world’s forests and who is responsible,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary for the US State Department. “Without this basic information, it is much harder to mobilize political will by decision-makers. It’s much harder to understand how the private sector is accountable for what they’re doing and how it feeds into the supply chains and business practices and what they need to do to be sustainable. It’s also hard for customers to make informed choices.”

The Technology

Before the availability of this tool, stakeholders battling deforestation were forced to rely on printed reports, static maps and other materials that were updated infrequently, with almost no public input.

“We know remarkably little about what is happening to the world’s forests,” said Nigel Sizer, Director of WRI’s Global Forest Initiative. “Most of what we do know is years out of date, it’s confusing and contradictory, and almost never presented in a way that business leaders, indigenous leaders, local communities and governments can easily act upon.”

Nigel Sizer, Director of the World Resources Institute's Global Forest Initiative.

For the first time, Global Forest Watch combines the power of global high-resolution satellite imagery, high-powered cloud computing, open data and human networks in a system covering more than 200 countries and across many languages, he said.

“The science exists,” said Rebecca Moore, ‎Engineering Manager, Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine at Google. “It has existed for years to analyze satellite data, to map forests. But a key challenge, and where we come in, has been to manage the enormous scale of the data and to manage the processing required to map, to measure and to monitor forests globally at the necessary level of detail to support meaningful management.”

The platform uses a range of forest data, some of which has been developed by WRI or its partners while other information is in the public domain and has been developed by governments, NGOs and companies. For example, it uses UM tree cover loss and gain data at 30 × 30 meter resolution. The data were generated using multispectral satellite imagery from the Landsat 7 thematic mapper plus sensor. More than 600,000 Landsat 7 images were compiled and analyzed using Google Earth Engine, a cloud platform for earth observation and data analysis donated to the effort.

FORMA, a near real-time tree cover loss alert system, is also featured on the site. It uses a cloud computing algorithm to analyze frequently updated satellite imagery along with information on factors that affect tree cover loss such as fires and precipitation. The system generates twice-monthly alerts for the world’s humid tropical forests that identify 500 × 500 meter areas where new, large-scale loss is likely to have occurred. The platform also incorporates data from Imazon’s Deforestation Alert System (Sistema de Alerta de Desmatamento—SAD), which monitors forest cover loss and forest degradation in the Brazilian Amazon and generates information published monthly by the NGO through its Forest Transparency Bulletin.

“You don’t need a PhD in remote sensing science to use Global Forest Watch,” Sizer said. “If you can use Google Maps to find a friend’s house, then you can use Global Forest Watch to understand what is happening to the forests in your neighborhood, across your entire country or even on the other side of the world.”

Watching forests in real-time

The Potential

Indigenous people have continued to conserve the world’s forests despite the numerous threats posed to them such as oil production, agriculture and infrastructure development, said Juan Carlos Jintiach, indigenous leader of the Shuar nation of Ecuador. The platform can help them monitor their forests and ensure that development occurs with dignity, he said.

“Global Forest Watch will be very valuable to indigenous people like my people,” Jintiach said. “Indigenous people have a great opportunity to share with the world what is going on in our territories. With Global Forest Watch, we can demonstrate the contribution we have made for centuries to conservation and biodiversity worldwide.”
The platform will allow indigenous people to easily upload alerts and photos to be shared worldwide.  “It’s a simple way to share our voice and histories,” he said.

uan Carlos Jintiach (middle), indigenous leader of the Shuar nation of Ecuador, spoke about how communities can participate in forest monitoring.

Nestlé and other companies can use the information to address deforestation within their supply chains. The Swiss-based company uses raw materials that have been linked with deforestation and loss of biodiversity, such as palm oil, so in 2010 made a no-deforestation commitment covering all the raw materials used to make its products and packaging.

“We’ve been relying on data sources that have long lag times,” said Molly Fogarty, Director, Government Relations at Nestlé USA. “For companies like ours that are sourcing such a huge variety of raw materials from different geographies, we want to set responsible sourcing guidelines. We set lofty goals for ourselves, but this tool will be probably one of many over coming years that will allow us to actually monitor our progress. Where we see incidents of things happening in our supply chain…we will have the ability to actually do some policing of our own supply chain.”

National governments should provide regulatory and enforcement actions on the ground using the tool, said Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility (GEF), which has already provided financing to a couple of countries to support this effort. “We are hopeful more and more countries participate in Global Forest Watch in the coming years and we’re quite ready to support them,” she said.

The Global Forest Watch effort is an important part of US President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, said Rajiv Shah, Administrator for the US Agency for International Development. The plan, released in June 2013, specified the need to preserve the role of forests in mitigating climate change by engaging in conservation and sustainable management.

“The consequences of deforestation are real and significant,” he said. “Every minute we lose 50 soccer fields of tropical forests.”

The Challenges

Making extensive data on forests available must be seen merely as a first step, as stakeholders must actually act on the information, Shah and others said. Governments, NGOs and corporates could use the new tool to target programs and funding to communities where deforestation is most acute.

“You can’t solve problems you can’t see and this gives the whole global effort a set of eyes that will make a huge difference,” Shah said.

The WRI has already been working with the Indonesian government, local NGOs and the corporate sector to track forest fires on a daily basis using the Global Forest Watch prototype and identify which companies own or control those areas of land and are potentially responsible for dealing with the fires, Sizer said.

“This really helps them focus their law enforcement efforts immediately and take action to address those kinds of problems,” he said.

Carlos Souza, Senior Researcher at Imazon, sees great potential to scale up the results achieved in Brazil via the NGO’s alert system, featured on the new platform. However, Brazilian law does not allow law enforcement to act based on satellite imagery alone, so on-the-ground verification of illegal deforestation activities is necessary. Only 18% of 2,400+ alerts under the Brazilian program have been verified according to established protocols and less than 1% of them are in the enforcement phase, he said.

A lack of on-the-ground institutional capacity to act on the information, as well as weak Internet connectivity in areas vulnerable to deforestation such as the Congo Basin, could challenge the platform’s effectiveness. Lilian Pintea, Vice-President, Conservation Science at the Jane Goodall Institute, urged donors and other stakeholders to ensure these communities have better Internet access, which would contribute to forest conservation and other initiatives.

The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment was the largest financial contributor to the development of Global Forest Watch, with a $10 million donation, while the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development and the GEF all contributed at least $5 million each. More than half of the project’s budget will be used to engage and help people act on the information, including grants to civil society organizations and researchers in developing countries to mobilize for reform, Sizer said.

“We do believe Global Forest Watch will be a game-changer for forests, for indigenous people, for the people who depend upon forests and perhaps even inspiration for others to do likewise for oceans, reefs, grasslands, the climate and other vital resources,” he said.