The New X Marks the Spot: Mapping Deforestation

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Forests & Lands

The stunning visualizations of new satellite data on global forest cover underscore the urgency of ending deforestation now. Rendered in vibrant hues, groundbreaking images and research published in Science last week and made publicly available for browsing on Google Earth reiterate the fact that deforestation is a massive global problem that requires immediate and sustained attention.

Why are these data, gathered by a team of research at the University of Maryland, Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other institutions, so exciting for those interested in protecting forest? First, this dataset is high-resolution – identifying deforestation down to an area the size of a swimming pool. Second, it is globally available and globally consistent – meaning that the same inputs and analyses were used everywhere on earth, and the resulting maps are comparable. Third, the new research provides annual data that are remarkably up-to-date and will be updated every year. Fourth – and most revolutionary, given the massive amount of data implied by the first three – the new data set is available to anyone with an internet connection (computer optional).

These four qualities – high resolution, global coverage, annual updates, and easy accessibility – make this dataset a game changer. Policy makers will be able to compare and respond to forest cover trends in any country on earth. Anyone in the world will now be able to identify deforestation in places they care about, whether next-door or halfway around the world. Combined with other types of data (such as who owns or controls particular parcels of land, or what agricultural products are being grown where), this new dataset will allow for monitoring of deforestation-reduction commitments by countries and companies.

What the Data Show, And What They Don’t

As exciting as this new research is, there are a few important details that policy makers and other users should understand. This dataset paints a picture of changes in forest cover that differs somewhat from what many people think of as ‘deforestation’ that may lead to misinterpretations in both directions.

First, it is important to note that the areas defined as “forest” in this dataset include tree plantations as well as natural forests. Thus, the conversion of a native forest to a monoculture tree plantation (for food or fiber), which many would consider to be “deforestation,” would not be captured as such over longer time spans. Second, routine harvesting of trees in natural forests or plantations, and natural disturbances such as fires and wind events, would register as deforestation. But much of the time harvesting and disturbances are followed by regrowth, so such activity is not an example of the type of long-term deforestation that fundamentally changes the way land is used – which is the real concern for climate and development.

Brazil in Focus: Mapping Subtlety

Despite these caveats, these data have already provided important insights on the state of deforestation around the world. For example, conventional wisdom holds that Brazil has achieved significant reductions in deforestation over the past decade. This new dataset agrees – but has a slightly less optimistic take, estimating that deforestation rates in Brazil have dropped by 50% rather than 70% as estimated by the Brazilian Space Agency.

What is behind this discrepancy? The Science dataset analyzes all of Brazil rather than just the Amazon. The Amazon has been the focus of many forest researchers, and indeed the size and importance of the Amazon ecosystem and the rampant deforestation there merit international attention. But increasingly, following initial success in slowing Amazonian deforestation, other parts of Brazil have come under fire. This study highlights the need to pay much more attention to non-Amazon deforestation in Brazil and surrounding areas.

In fact, initial comparison of this data to other sources suggests that up to two-thirds of Brazilian deforestation could be taking place outside of the Amazon. While some of the grasslands and forests in other parts of Brazil are less carbon- and biodiversity-rich than the Amazon, not all of them are – and their conversion to agriculture can still produce damaging carbon pollution and take away resources and rights of local communities.

Yet not all of the non-Amazon deforestation identified in the Science article occurs in natural forests. Plantation forestry is much more prevalent outside of the Amazon than inside, which could account for why this study – which counts routine plantation forest harvesting as ‘deforestation’ – sees less improvement in Brazil’s deforestation situation that previous studies.

A New Policy Urgency

The same technologies that have provided such groundbreaking information on the state of deforestation in Brazil can be used to make policy decisions around the world. Current satellite remote sensing technologies are incredibly sophisticated, and studies such as this one demonstrate the range of possibilities in what satellite data can measure.

This new resource makes clear that existing technologies can profoundly support global forest conservation mechanisms, such as REDD+. It should help spur the global climate policy community to find the political will for changing land management practices inside tropical forest countries, and generating certainty that deforestation reductions will be valued globally through mechanisms such as REDD+ and preferential agribusiness sourcing.

The technology is in place – we just hope that the right incentives and the political will to stop deforestation rise to meet the challenge. Otherwise, these very tools will just give us a front row seat as tropical forests disappear before our eyes.

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On November 18, 2013

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