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The forest and the trees. A new forest mapping tool is aimed at laypeople and scientists alike.

The forest and the trees. A new forest mapping tool is aimed at laypeople and scientists alike.

World Resources Institute

The World's Forests at Your Fingertips

A new electronic tool called Global Forest Watch (GFW) offers the public, policymakers, and scientists near-real-time data on Earth’s forests through an interactive website. Launched last week by the World Resources Institute, the tool allows users to track deforestation over time, find recently clear-cut areas and current fires, and receive alerts when there are changes to specific tracts of interest.

A coalition of governments, scientists, and environmental groups worked on the interactive map for 2 years. The target audience is everyone from activists to wildlife biologists to companies interested in the origin of the products they buy from forested areas. “If you’re trying to monitor deforestation in near real time for law enforcement, for supply chain management, we think this will be a very helpful new tool,” says Nigel Sizer, an ecologist who leads the forest team at WRI, a nonpartisan environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.

Scientists have loaded GFW with a variety of data sets and tools. Satellite data from Landsat, MODIS, and other remote sources are tapped. Users can view political boundaries, protected areas, and commercial areas for logging, mining, or palm oil production. Maps are accompanied with sliding time bars to allow users to scroll backward and forward. The data sets underpinning the website are linked in a single place, helping scientists new to the geographical data navigate the information. Citizen scientists are encouraged to post stories linked to particular forests.

Most of the voluminous data accessible with GFW was already publicly available before last week’s rollout. But few outside universities or a handful of government agencies or specialized nonprofits could use it to track deforestation reliably, says geographer Christopher Justice of the University of Maryland, College Park. Scientists at his institution helped provide to WRI analyzed Landsat data showing changes in forest cover. Another group, which joined WRI 2 years ago, created a data product that includes alerts of new deforestation every 16 days. The partners in the collaboration include Google, which helps analyze and visualize the data.

“Before, if you were lucky you could analyze one, two, maybe three chimpanzee sites for deforestation,” says Lilian Pintea, a conservation biologist with the Jane Goodall Institute in Vienna, Virginia. That group’s efforts to compare conditions at different chimp habitats was limited by an arduous process that required researchers to download raw satellite data, process the images to remove noise and clouds, and then analyze them for changes. “Now, for the first time, we can compare how the chimpanzee habitats are changing at the scale of their entire range,” Pintea says. His group is using the deforestation alerts tool to send rangers to investigate possible new deforestation events. WRI plans to spend up to $3 million over the next few years for small grants to encourage developing country scientists to conduct research with their tool.

GFW is the latest step in democratizing forest data in hopes of stemming deforestation around the world, says Steve Schwartzman, who heads the tropical forest program at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. In 1999, WRI began monitoring forests with printed reports and maps. In 2002, Brazil began making its satellite data on forests public. Six years later, the U.S. Geological Survey opened up its archive of Landsat satellite data.

A paper based on that treasure trove, High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change, wowed researchers with its detailed analysis. Aided by the cloud computing power of Google’s Earth Engine, the paper analyzed 12 years of forest change at a resolution of 30 meters. Now, processed data will be available for anyone with an Internet connection to build off that work.

Schwartzman says transparency is “one of the elements that has contributed to the big drop in Brazil’s deforestation,” helping spur greater protection of indigenous territories and certain endangered forests and a crackdown on illegal deforestation. “In itself, more transparency doesn’t lead to stopping deforestation. But this is a terrific step.”