Researchers team up with Google to map global deforestation


It’s a familiar story we have all been hearing for years: global deforestation is increasing at an alarming rate. Decades of unsustainable logging in Malaysia has depleted timber stocks and crippled traditional forest management, leaving 15% of the world’s oldest rainforests cut down. Increased logging activity in Indonesia has nearly doubled its annual loss to 20,000 square km in the past year. The world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, has seen deforestation increase by 1/3 in the same amount of time. With all of these figures, it is difficult to form an image of what all of this data means.

In an effort to illustrate the situation, university researchers recently teamed with Google to create a new interactive map that visually demonstrates the global forest change from 2000 to 2012. Based in Google Earth, the mapping layer utilizes 654,178 satellite images to show the rates of loss and gain of forestland over the last twelve years.

At first glance, one would assume that the map only tells us what we already know, that deforestation is on the rise, but that is just the beginning. The map does show that an estimated 2.3 million km of the earth’s forests have been lost during this 12-year period. Large losses in Indonesia and Bolivia underscore this fact. However, with the map’s resolution capable of zooming in to approximately 30 meters, an extraordinary amount of detail can be observed at the local level. With this information, we can utilize the map to pinpoint the most endangered areas of forest.

The map also provides a glimmer of hope. Despite the rise in deforestation in the past year, Brazil has shown gains in forestland in the past decade. Viewing the map at the highest resolution, it is possible to see how the nation’s conservation laws and regrowth efforts can help stem the tide of forest loss, and how similar initiatives could be implemented elsewhere.

The map is the collaborative effort between researchers from the University of Maryland, State University of New York, South Dakota State University, Woods Hole Research Center, USGS, and Google – and has been published by the University of Maryland. It is estimated that it would have taken 15 years for a single machine to process the volume of data that was used to create this map, however with Google’s assistance in the project the process took only a few days.

The map will be updated annually with new data, and will hopefully become a powerful tool in combating global deforestation.

environmental dataEfrain Rodriguez
Research Analyst
Document Research Services

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