Pillars of tropical forests can no longer hide behind the clouds

Deforested land on Indonesia’s Borneo Island. Activists use satellites to monitor deforestation, but cloud cover sometimes hides it from the point of view.

Bay Ismoyo / AFP via Getty Images

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Bay Ismoyo / AFP via Getty Images

Deforested land on Indonesia’s Borneo Island. Activists use satellites to monitor deforestation, but cloud cover sometimes hides it from the point of view.

Bay Ismoyo / AFP via Getty Images

The world continues to lose millions of acres of its most valuable tropical forests each year. But defenders of these forests have just used a new tool in their fight to stop it – or at least warn the world when it happens.

It’s an upgrade of a system called Global Forest Watch, created by the World Resources Institute. The website makes it possible to monitor what is happening with distant tropical forests almost in real time through satellite images.

Mikaela Weisse, who helps run this site, demonstrates how it works. She zoom in in a small area of ​​the Central African Republic. It’s similar to Google Maps, except that this map is constantly updated. Behind the scenes, computers are sifted through a flood of images collected from satellites day by day using techniques devised by researchers at the University of Maryland and Wageningen University in Holland.

When the software detects a change – when trees have disappeared from a particular place since the satellite last looked at it, it emits a alert, and a color-coded location appears on the map where trees appear to have disappeared. The satellites visit every place on the planet approx. once a week.

“If we can detect deforestation and other changes as soon as they happen,” Weisse says, “then there is the possibility of sending law enforcement, or whatever you have, to stop it before it goes any further.”

There is some evidence that the monitoring works, she says. According to one examination, places where people know they are being monitored, there has been less deforestation.

However, the system has had a major problem. When it is raining or cloudy, ordinary satellite sensors cannot see the forest. And in the tropics it rains a lot. “In Indonesia, my impression is that it’s the rainy season almost all the time.” Weisse says. “There is almost always cloud cover.”

This means that deforestation only appears weeks or even months later when the weather is clear. And Weisse says some loggers or ranchers have taken advantage of it and cleared land during rainy times of the year.

Last month, however, Weisse and her colleagues unveiled something new. Their system now collects images from an extra kind of satellite sensor using radar that looks straight through clouds.

“Essentially, satellites send radio waves to Earth and collect how they come back,” she says. The instrument is operated by the European Space Agency, and it delivers even sharper images than what Global Forest Watch had received.

“We can actually see these small spots that indicate where a single tree has been removed,” Weisse says.

At this place in the Central African Republic, in front of her on the computer, the map shows dark pink lines and spots where trees disappeared just within the last few weeks.

Everyone in the world can log in and see this. So local environmentalists or even large food companies that have promised not to buy crops grown on the forest area can react faster.

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