New Google-Powered Site Tracks Global Deforestation in ‘Near-Real-Time’

In Sep­tem­ber we told you about tril­lions of satel­lite images of Earth, gen­er­at­ed by the Land­sat, that are now avail­able to the pub­lic.

Now we can share an inter­ac­tive tool that is using some of those Land­sat images to stop ille­gal defor­esta­tion.

With help from Google Earth Engine, the World Resources Insti­tute launched Glob­al For­est Watch, an online for­est mon­i­tor­ing and alert sys­tem that allows indi­vid­ual com­put­er users to watch forests around the world change in an almost real-time stream of imagery.

Whis­tle blow­ers are mak­ing pow­er­ful use of the Glob­al For­est Watch tool. Using spa­tial data streams avail­able on the site to observe for­est changes in south­east­ern Peru, a num­ber of users sub­mit­ted alerts about rapid­ly esca­lat­ing defor­esta­tion near a gold mine and riv­er val­ley. In anoth­er case, observers sub­mit­ted an alert about ille­gal log­ging in the Repub­lic of the Con­go.

Five years ago, NASA and the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey lift­ed pro­to­cols that kept Land­sat images pro­pri­etary. Now, agen­cies like the World Resources Institute—and even tiny cit­i­zen watch­dog groups around the world—have access to incred­i­bly rich tools and data. Some of the imagery is hard to inter­pret. Glob­al For­est Watch devel­oped a num­ber of dif­fer­ent data lay­ers for users to apply, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor for­est areas for trends or ille­gal log­ging. The video at the top of this page gives a good overview of how the site works. This one gives more detail about how to use the maps on the Glob­al For­est Watch site.

Select an area of the world and then select a data set that inter­ests you. Choose to look at ter­rain, satel­lite, road, tree height, or com­pos­ite images of a par­tic­u­lar region. Data lay­ers can be lay­ered on top of one anoth­er to show trends in for­est man­age­ment. In Indone­sia, for exam­ple, you can use the FORMA alerts but­ton to see what has already been report­ed in that area of the humid trop­ics.

How can you tell if for­est change is due to ille­gal log­ging? Turn on the For­est Use fil­ters to see which areas are autho­rized for log­ging and min­ing and which are pro­tect­ed. In Indone­sia, many areas are des­ig­nat­ed for oil palm pro­duc­tion, but expan­sion of those crops are often asso­ci­at­ed with loss of nat­ur­al for­est.

Do your own sleuthing. The site is designed to har­ness data from gov­ern­ment and aca­d­e­m­ic sci­en­tists, along with obser­va­tion from indi­vid­u­als (us). There is even infor­ma­tion about com­pa­nies that are grow­ing oil palm trees, so it’s pos­si­ble that a dili­gent user could catch an over-aggres­sive grow­er step­ping over the for­est bound­ary.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Plan­e­tary Per­spec­tive: Tril­lions of Pic­tures of the Earth Avail­able Through Google Earth Engine

Trace Darwin’s Foot­steps with Google’s New Vir­tu­al Tour of the Gala­pa­gos Islands

Reef View: Google Gives Us Stun­ning Under­wa­ter Shots of Great Coral Reefs

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Fol­low her on Twit­ter.

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