We are wrapping things up with Ruth Nogueron of the World Resources Institute (WRI) for the last installment about Global Forest Watch (GFW) and GLAD (Global Land Analysis and Discovery) alerts. Last week we talked about using these tools to assess the risk of sourcing potentially illegal or controversial timber. We will conclude with a few more notes and then what is next for these monitoring tools.
Last week you talked about the Internet limitations of Global Forest Watch and how WRI developed Forest Watcher to address connectivity issues. What other limitations should users be aware of?
Ruth: An important limitation, as we discussed earlier, is the dense cloud cover in the tropics. Without a clear satellite image, the system is unable to detect tree loss underneath the clouds. So, if you do not see a GLAD alert, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no tree cover loss there. It could mean there were too many clouds and we could not analyze the area.
Another limitation is that it is not possible yet to detect selective logging— when loggers cut one or two trees rather than clear a whole section of forest. At the current scale and resolution of the imagery these events often go unnoticed.
The alerts alone are also not enough to determine the legality of tree harvesting. Users need to know first where their timber is coming from, using traceability systems to assess the legal, environmental or even social attributes of the timber. In addition, users also need to have access to other contextual information— whether it’s spatial (e.g. the boundaries of the forest management unit) or non-spatial such as forest management plans.
Finally, speaking of contextual data, it is challenging for WRI to add and maintain all the contextual datasets required for all countries, so there may be information gaps on the platform for someone looking to monitor for timber.
It seems that everything is Internet-dependent. What if the users do not have easy access to the Internet? Is that another limitation?
Ruth: That’s one we hope to have under control. In 2017 GFW launched Forest Watcher, a mobile application that allows users to upload the GLAD alerts to their phones or tablets and access them offline. With Forest Watcher, users can navigate in the field to the alerts, validate them and gather information about the causes of the tree cover loss. This is a new step in addressing connectivity issues and we will continue to improve our accessibility offline.
What is next for Global Forest Watch and the GLAD alerts?
Ruth: The World Resources Institute is working with a variety of partners to build on the tools we already offer. With Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Satelligence, we are piloting methodologies that incorporate radar imagery into alert systems to overcome the cloud cover limitation. We are also working to launch a pilot with Sheffield University in the UK to identify and monitor selective logging using satellite imagery. With our other partners we are working to develop methods for prioritizing alerts, as well as on machine learning to automatically detect the drivers of tree cover loss. We are also constantly adding contextual geospatial information such as areas of forest management, plantations, indigenous territories, etc.
We have also created a template called “MapBuilder” that people can use to develop online atlases or geospatial portals with their own contextual datasets. This allows the owners of the data to have direct control of their data and update it without waitinging on WRI, while also still having access to the analysis and visualization features of GFW Governments in Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Central African Republic and other countries have developed their own forest atlases using MapBuilder as well as some civil society organizations.
GFW is always continuously improving our existing tools to offer the best and most up to date forest data. There is a lot of technology that we will be able to use in the years to come to support legal forest trade.
Wonderful and thank you, Ruth, it was great of you to take so much time to introduce us to the new tech. And many thanks to your colleague Sarah Ruiz as well for providing all the graphics—I don’t usually get such great art for blogs and I really appreciate that. I hope you both aren’t too exhausted, and will please come back and update us on other new tech as it becomes available!