Tracking Deforestation by Measuring the Distance to the Nearest Forest

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There are many ways to measure deforestation in the world today. For example, researchers can use satellite imagery to detect changes in forest density and growth around the world, or with help from LiDAR. Deforestation is affecting forest growth around the world and contributes to the way climate change effects various locations.

Researchers have estimated that when Europeans first set foot on North American shores, the forests were so dense that a squirrel could have travelled from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without having to touch the ground. Human settlement, logging, and other industries have cut this forested area down to a fraction of what it was.

Deforestation doesn’t happen equally, which makes estimating the extent of deforestation in the United States difficult. New research has given scientists a new way to track forest changes using a mix of satellites and information gathered in the field.

Using satellite images, researchers established a method of calculating the distance between any point in the continental United States and the nearest forested area. They tracked this data using information from 1992, and again in 2001. These two data sets showed that the distance to the nearest forest increased by a third of a mile.

Forest cover change (FCC) and forest attrition distance change (FADC) by area (in km) and by percentage. Forest cover change (FCC) is calculated by subtracting the amount of forest in 1992 from the amount of forest in 2001. Source: Yang & Mountrakis, 2017.

Forest cover change (FCC) and forest attrition distance change (FADC) by area (in km) and by percentage. Forest cover change (FCC) is calculated by subtracting the amount of forest in 1992 from the amount of forest in 2001. Source: Yang & Mountrakis, 2017.

This new measuring tool is being called the forest attrition distance. As human settlements and industry grows, smaller patches of forest are lost to attrition and the distance to the next forested area increases. This metric not only takes the quantity of the forest into question, but the quality as well.

Researchers hope that increasing the knowledge of how deforestation affects people, animals, and plants, will continue to slow the practice of clear cutting and increase awareness when it comes to the conservation of America’s forested lands.

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