In case you didn't know, forests are pretty important. They store carbon, purify water and help regulate the earth's climate. It's estimated that forests contain about 90% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity and scientists have spent a whole lot of time studying their significance to human society. So you'd think we'd look after them, right? Wrong. Forests are disappearing at a pretty rapid rate and unfortunately deforestation data (if it's available) is often only useful to look back on the damage done ... when it's already too late. But that could be about to change. 

2014 21 02 Global Forest Loss
A map indicating global forest loss. Image: Google blog

A new online monitoring system will make it possible to quickly check the condition of tropical forests around the globe that were previously under no surveillance, potentially increasing pressure on governments to stop deforestation.

Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI) has unveiled Global Forest Watch (GFW), a new tool to evaluate forests worldwide developed by dozens of institutions with the help of Google Inc's Earth Engine.

It promises to improve scrutiny of changes in forest cover in vulnerable areas of Southeast Asia, Africa and the Amazon.

"For the first time, we have united in one place powerful satellite information analyzed in a way that is easy to understand," said Nigel Sizer, director of WRI's Global Forest Initiative.

The system uses high resolution data from half a billion Landsat satellite images to measure tree cover loss or gain. It also carries a tree cover loss alert, pinpointing where new forest clearing occurs.

"With the exception of Brazil, none of the tropical forest countries have been able to report the state of their forests," said Rebecca Moore, engineering manager with Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine. "Now it will be possible to have near real-time updates of the state of the world's forests, open to anyone to use."

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The United States’ most heavily forested region is made up of production forests (Legend: Pink = tree cover loss; Blue= Tree cover gain). Image: Google blog

The project was made possible by the Landsat imagery archives opened to the public in 2008 by the U.S. Geological Service, Moore said.

WRI expects the new system to also increase the pressure on commodities suppliers in countries where forests are at risk.

Swiss food giant Nestle said the new tool could contribute to better oversight of suppliers of raw materials such as meat, soy and palm oil.

"It is going to help us dramatically to refine our work on the ground, in places where we think there might be issues with our supply chain," said Duncan Pollard, associate vice president for sustainability at Nestle, a program collaborator.

Global Forest Watch will embed key information in the images. For example, it will be possible to check which palm oil company is operating in a specific area of Indonesia where images have shown recent forest destruction. That could lead to a buyer canceling purchases from a supplier, WRI's Sizer said.

Carlos Souza, from Brazilian forest research center Imazon, a partner in the program, said projects to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation could receive a boost due to increased data transparency.

"Investors could feel more comfortable to take part in projects if they can track forest loss," Souza said.

The governments of Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States are among the largest donors for the initial investment of $25 million to build the tool.

Source: Reuters

Header Image: DR04