Space technology helps tackle deforestation Shooting laser beams at trees to tackle deforestation

A remote sensing image of part of the Congo River and surrounding forests

Congo River and surrounding forests

Conservationist, Leonidas Nzigiyimpa says “you can’t manage what you don’t know”.

He adds: “To improve the forest’s situation, we need to use new technology.”

Mr Nzigiyimpa is the head of five protected forestry areas in the small central African country of Burundi.

For the past two decades, he and his team have worked with local communities to protect and manage the forest. His face lights up as he describes the fresh smell and beauty of the areas. “It’s pure nature,” he says.

In carrying out his work, Nzigiyimpa must consider a range of factors, from monitoring the impact of human actions and economies, to tracking biodiversity and the impact of climate change, plus staff numbers and budgets.

Conservationist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa

Conservationist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa has won international awards for his work

To help him track and record all of this, he now uses the latest version of a free software called the Integrated Management Effectiveness Tool.

The tool has been developed especially for such environmental work by a project called Biopama (Biodiversity and Protected Areas Management Programme). This is supported by both the EU and the 79 member countries of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

“So we use this kind of tool to train the managers of the site to use it to collect good data and analyze that data to make good decisions,” says Nzigiyimpa.

Tracking and protecting the world’s forests is not only important to the communities and economies most directly affected. Deforestation contributes to climate change, so restoring forests can help combat it.

Around 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of the world’s forests are lost every year, according to the UN.

This deforestation accounts for 20% of all the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which adds that “by reducing forest loss, we can reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change”.

To try to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, last year the United Nations launched the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. This has seen countries, companies and other organizations pledge action to prevent, stop and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.

“But just saying we’re going to restore is not enough,” says Yelena Finegold, forestry officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “There is a need for responsible planning of how that ecosystem restoration will happen, followed by action on the ground enabled by investments in restoration, and monitoring systems in place to track that ecosystem restoration.”

Yelena Finegold

Yelena Finegold says the goal is both to track deforestation – and to reverse it

This increased focus on managing forests has given rise to new digital tools to collect, sort and use data better.

One of these is FAO’s own website Framework for Ecosystem Monitoring (Ferm). Launched last year, the site uses satellite imagery to highlight changes in forests around the world. The maps and data are accessible to all internet users, whether they are a scientist, government official, business or member of the public.

An important data source for Ferm is the American space agency Nasa, and its Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation system. Known as Gedi for short, this acronym is pronounced like the word Jedi from the Star Wars movies. And continuing the theme of that film series, the slogan is “may the forest be with you”.

The technology itself is certainly very sci-fi-turned-reality. “We’re shooting laser beams at trees from the International Space Station,” says Laura Duncanson, who co-leads the Gedi project from the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences.

The International Space Station

NASA’s Gedi system fires laser beams from the International Space Station

“We use the reflected energy to map forests in 3D, including their height, canopy density and carbon content,” adds Dr Duncanson, who is a leading expert in remote sensing. “This is an exciting new technology because for decades we have been able to observe deforestation from space, but now with Gedi we can map the carbon emissions associated with forest loss [for greater accuracy].”

Maps and data are also supplied to Ferm by the Norwegian business Planet Labs, which operates more than 200 camera-equipped satellites. These take around 350 million images of the Earth’s surface on a daily basis, each covering an area of ​​one square kilometer.

Planet Labs can also be hired directly by governments and companies worldwide. In addition to monitoring forests, the cameras can be used to check everything from drought to agriculture, energy and infrastructure projects, and monitor key infrastructure, such as ports.

Remi D’Annunzio, another FAO forestry officer, says that all available images from space “have changed the way we monitor forests enormously, because it has provided extremely repeatable observations and extremely frequent site revisits”.

He adds: “Now, with all these publicly available satellites combined, we can get a complete snapshot of the Earth every four to five days.”

Rangers in Vietnam

Rangers in Vietnam are now using data from Ferm to tackle illegal logging

Examples of how all this near-real-time monitoring via Ferm is now being put to use are pilot schemes in Vietnam and Laos that are trying to tackle illegal logging. Rangers and community workers on the ground are alerted to their cell phones when new deforestation is detected.

“Now, what we’re really trying to do is understand not just the volume of forests being lost, but where specifically it’s being lost in this district or that, so we can monitor loss, and even prevent it in almost real- time, from getting worse,” says FAO forestry officer Akiko Inoguchi.

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