New Detailed Maps Show Changes in Earth’s Forests

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Deforestation, the clearing and removal of the Earth’s forests, has been one of the major environmental threats to the globe in the last several decades. Not only does deforestation damage the land but it also threatens millions of plant and animal species who lose their habitat. Additionally, deforestation can contribute to global warming and climate change since trees absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to National Geographic, areas of forest as big as the country of Panama are permanently lost every year.

The good news is that there is a new tool for researchers, organizations, and other individuals who want to track changes in the world’s forests thanks to a collaboration project between Dr. Matthew Hansen at the University of Maryland and Google. Earlier this month, Google announced that the project had produced the first detailed maps of the Earth’s forests that show changes in them over time. The maps were built from a time-series analysis of 654,178 Landsat images and demonstrate changes from the years 2000 to 2012. What is notable about the maps is that they record and measure how the forest landscape has changed due to both human factors and environmental phenomena. Human activities that contribute to forest change include logging and clearing of the land for agriculture and ranching while natural forces include wildfires, diseases, and tornados.

While these innovative maps show deforestation in dynamic ways, they are the end results of a large undertaking from both computer scientists at Google and remote sensing scientists from the University of Maryland. These scientists took satellite data from NASA’s Landsat program, ultimately processing over 650,000 images from the satellite’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus sensor. Scientists were then able to develop and test models for building the maps using Google’s Earth Engine platform, which holds the entire collection of Landsat images. What would have taken fifteen years for a single computer took to do only a matter of days in order to analyze the geospatial data in this case.

Overall, these maps of the changes in the Earth’s forests paint a grim picture with regards to deforestation. From 2000-2012, the world lost 1.5 million square kilometers of forests, an area comparable to the size of the entire state of Alaska, and the global rate of tropical deforestation is on the rise. The maps also show areas where deforestation is being reduced while increasing in other areas. For example, the map demonstrates that deforestation in Brazil has actually been decreasing but growing in other countries like Malaysia, Angola, Tanzania, and Indonesia. The highest rate of deforestation has been found to be in Paraguay’s Chaco woods where forests are being cleared for cattle ranches.


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The hope is that these groundbreaking maps will benefit the planet in different ways. Maps that track changes in the forest could be used for a variety of purposes. Scientists could use them to develop models for climate change and measure the biodiversity of certain areas, they could inform various policy initiatives by governments, and help improve public and private management of forests. Scientists involved in the project hope that the maps will fill what they call an information void, especially for countries that do not have access to this kind of information, and enhance the way national forests are monitored. Although deforestation continues to be a global environmental concern, these maps are novel tools that could help reduce and prevent it.

To view the GIS data visit Global Forest Change.

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References

Hansen, Matt, Peter Potapov, Rebecca Moore, and Matt Hancher. “The First Detailed Maps of Global Forest Change.” Research Blog. Google, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://googleresearch.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-first-detailed-maps-of-global.html>.

Moore, Rebecca, and Matt Hancher. “Mapping the World’s Deforestation over Time.” Google Lat Long. Google, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013. <http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2013/11/mapping-worlds-deforestation-over-time.html>.

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