Thursday, September 13, 2012

NASA Tool Tracks Deforestation to Help Law Enforcement

All over the world, forests are disappearing as they are cut downto help fuel human development--ofteninplaces where no one is monitoring. Now a project using NASA satellites can help alert us to whenthedamage needs to bestopped.

It'sthe holy grail for those hunting illegal logging: a satellite tool to find deforestation anywhere in the worldaroundthe clock. Now they have it.

NASA researchersat Ameslaboratory in California teamed up with the environmental newsand watchdog site, Mongabay, to create the tool: the GlobalForest Disturbance Alert system. Every three months, the system compiles data from the entire Earths' surface for signsofforest lossdown to five square kilometers. Anyone can get this free, timely comprehensive look at the 50,000 square miles of forest lost eachyear.

"I'm hoping the tool can help journalists andactivists pinpoint areas where deforestation is occurring," says Rhett Butler, the founder and editor-in-chiefof Mongabay.

The program'sfirst pilot through Mongabay's Indonesianwebsite willrecruit local journalists to look for forest disturbance hotspots. About 50 freelancersare scheduled to help monitor deforestation across the Indonesian archipelago. Soon, text message alertswillbe added to alert anyone when forest cover ischanging somewhere in the world.

"We hope that this networkwill enable usto look into deforestationhotspots… to learn what isactually happening on the ground: Isthe 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 emailthismonth (editedfor length) describing what's next for monitoring the world'sdwindling forests.

Co.Exist: Why wasn't thisdone before? Wasit primarily technical challenges or something else?

Butler: That'swhat 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 renewedinterest in forests as massive storesofcarbon. Thus, reducing deforestation isincreasingly seen as away 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 AmesResearch Center in Mountain View. Called the "Quarterly Indicator of Cover Change," the product used satellite data from the MODIS sensor to compare changesin forest vegetationindex imagesona globalscale. It seemed like a great opportunity to developa quarterly "deforestation" alert tool.

What are you tracking exactly?

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

We plan to rollout 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 toolmonthly, rather than quarterly in the near future.

What hassurprised you so far about the results? Doesit match the "official" reports/statistics?

We're still testing thisout but so far the alerts are coming from areas I would expect, like northern Myanmar, Indonesian Borneo and New Guinea (e.g. near anarea where large-scale plantation development is occurring), Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea. These places are experiencing high rates of forest conversion. In many partsofthe world, there aren't any "official" deforestation estimates on a regular basis--the closest thing to that are the reportsput 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 makessense, is the number of alerts coming from very cold regionslike the Himalayas, Patagonia, Alaska, Western and Eastern Canada, and Scandinavia. What the system isdetecting isretreat of winter ice and snow in forest areas. A similar thing occasionally happens on a smaller scale along meandering rivers, when river channels shift andislandsdisappear. That'swhy we ultimately called the tool a "forest disturbance" system rather than a "deforestation" system.

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

We were recently approached by an NGO that is looking into using the system to see whether itscorporate partners are abiding by an internal "zero deforestation" commitment. In Indonesia we now have a networkof 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 afew countries who say they are using the tool. Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry isone.

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

I'd like to see landuse become more transparent. What's happening, who's doing it. That can inform debate on what'sthe best use ofresources.