Coming Soon: A Mobile App for Detecting Deforestation as It Happens
by Taylor Hill - TakePart
Feb 23, 2016
A scientist develops technology that combines high-resolution satellite imagery and software to alert authorities of illegal logging in near real-time.
What if you could catch illegal loggers before they swing the ax?
Like Tom Cruise in Minority Report—arresting murderers just before they kill—the key is the technology (or weird, genetically mutated mind readers in the case of the sci-fi thriller). For the world’s forests, researchers have developed a satellite-based alert system that detects logging within a week of or just hours after trees start falling and, in some cases, before clear-cutting even begins. The new tool, developed by University of Maryland geographer Matthew Hansen, is a significant improvement on existing information-gathering tools that conservationists are already using to fight deforestation.
For instance, Brazil’s Real Time System for Detection of Deforestation (DETER) tool takes images from NASA’s Terra satellite and alerts officials of large-scale land clearing. But the images beamed back to Earth are low-resolution, unable to show small-scale deforestation or changes in tree cover.
Hansen’s team is using images from NASA’s two active Landsat satellites, which send back high-resolution photos of every spot on Earth every eight days. These pictures contain 70 pixels for every one pixel the Terra satellite camera captured, meaning researchers would be able to determine land changes in areas the size of a baseball diamond, instead of across 10 football fields.
Scientists already use the high-resolution images to calculate annual tree losses, but Hansen and his team developed software that can break down the millions of images in just seconds, giving near real-time looks on small-scale deforestation.
The program can detect small disturbances such as a zigzagging road through untouched forests—often a precursor to clear-cutting—and small tree-cutting activity in parks, on privately owned property, or around indigenous communities.
“It’s really something we see that can be used as an early warning and hopefully give people a jump-start on taking action to combat deforestation as it occurs—not just after the fact,” said Mikaela Weisse, research assistant at the Global Forest Watch, a Washington D.C.–based environmental group.
Weiss said Global Forest Watch is planning to put deforestation alerts on its website staring March 2. The system will show any alerts dating back to January 2015, and on each successive satellite pass over the same area—every eight days—the software will determine if trees have disappeared. If so, a pixel will turn red over the newly deforested area, and an alert will be issued.
Weiss said Global Forest Watch followers can sign up for emails that will alert them when specific regions, parks, and indigenous areas are being impacted and how often.
“We’re hoping to get this type of monitoring into government efforts and into the hands of companies that monitor industries like palm oil plantations,” Weiss said.
Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told the journal Nature that “in the context of law enforcement, timeliness is everything. A couple weeks later, not only is the forest gone, but so is the equipment and all the evidence you might be able to use for a successful prosecution.”
But the real-time satellite imagery needs on-the-ground confirmation. Clouds can block out views of rainforest canopies for months at a time, and the evidence needs to be verified.
Lilian Pintea, vice president of conservation science at The Jane Goodall Institute in Virginia, has been working with Global Forest Watch on an app that will put near real-time alerts in the hands of local communities equipped with smartphones and tablets.
Pintea worked on a NASA-funded project that used Hansen’s forest-change-monitoring program to examine chimpanzee habitat health in Africa. The three-year grant will put 500 mobile devices in the hands of community representatives, park rangers, and others to help crowdsource a habitat health index across the chimps’ entire range.
“By identifying forest areas in the process of being exploited or converted to other land uses, local stakeholders will have a chance to do something about it instead of just documenting deforestation,” Pintea said.
“Improving both our eyes in the sky while in the same time empowering local communities and decision makers to access and use this information is a great model that will assure that new technologies and big data are actually used to improve conservation decisions.”
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.