Watching the world’s lungs – Technology to monitor global deforestation

The World Resources Institute (WRI) initiated the production of an online tool that would map global deforestation (and reforestation) rates two years ago. This week, that tool was launched and is now expected to enable scientists, policy makers, businesses and activists to evaluate forestry gains and losses which will in turn help them act accordingly to prevent further destruction. The tool – created by a partnership of governments, scientists and environmental groups – is easy to use, informative and is an important step towards transparency about how humans are impacting these indispensable ecosystems.

The monitoring system, called Global Forest Watch (GFW), consists of an interactive map of the world that uses data collected from various sources (NASA, Landsat, NGOs, international databases, government data etc.) and has a menu of analytical options available to highlight areas of interest such as which regions are gaining and losing forest. At a basic level the map can show you global forest cover and how this is changing over time. However, it can also display a variety of information including where there have been active forest fires over the past 7 days (data supplied by NASA), where tropical forest carbon stocks are located according to biomass, if specific areas of forest are being used for industries such as logging and mining, where protected areas are and regions of high biodiversity. Furthermore, the website allows you to examine forestry statistics from each country individually including anything from carbon stocks to the annual revenue provided by the forestry sector to the economy (an estimated $6.7 billion to the British economy in 2006). There is also a blog run by the site and a stories section where anyone can submit stories about forest events in their local areas.

The change in forest cover over time (since 2000) can be examined by scrolling along the timeline displayed at the bottom of the map. This makes zones of most concern more visible and indicates where conservation efforts are needed more urgently – especially with the biodiversity hotspot indicator switched on. This timeline can also allow scientists and conservation biologists to monitor key habitats and push for better law enforcement, such as action against illegal logging. Deforestation alerts are available with the tool which will enhance this ability further.

Because the tool is free and condenses extensive data into an extremely accessible way, it can be used by a wide variety of audiences. Businesses can assess where their produce is coming from so that they can be better informed when trying to promote sustainability within their organisations and companies. It can also be utilised by policy makers to examine the state of global forests and carbon stocks in a clear and comprehendible manner so as to make more informed decisions and contributions when discussing how to prevent further damaging losses. GFW can also be used by members of the public and activists to better understand how and where forests are changing and being lost so they can be informed when making lifestyle, political and campaign decisions.

If we hope to curb the rapidly increasing destruction of the world’s forests (230 million hectares of forest were lost between 2000 and 2012) then carefully monitoring and spreading awareness about this loss in a clear and accessible manner is absolutely key. GFW provides an accessible way to do this for a range of audiences and is a powerful tool to show changes in real time.

In the UK, the forestry commission published a report this week that indicates our forests have been steadily growing over the last century and that we now have 3 million hectares of forest (13% of total land compared with 4-6% 100 years ago). Our forestry industry also directly provides 166,000 jobs, according to the most recent figures from the FAO (2006).

Our newest edition of Ecological Reviews is about Forests and Global Change (Edited by D.A Coomes, D.F.R.P Burslem and W.D. Simonson) will be available shortly and can be pre-ordered here.