Space technology to help fight deforestation by shooting beams of radiation at trees



Remote sensing image of the Congo River and its surrounding forests

The Congo River and the surrounding forests

“You can’t manage what you don’t know,” says environmentalist Leonidas Nzigiimpa.

He added, “We need to use new technology to improve the condition of the forest.”

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

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

In carrying out his work, Mr Nzigiyimpa has to consider a range of factors, from monitoring the impact of human activities and economies, to monitoring the impact of biodiversity and climate change, including staff numbers and budgets.

Conservationist Leonides Nzigiyimpa

The conservationist Leonidas Nzigiyimpa has won international awards for his work

He now uses free software called the Integrated Management Effectiveness Tool to help him track and record all of this.

The tool was developed for such environmental protection works by a project called BioPama (Biodiversity and Protected Areas Management Programme). It is supported by the European Union and the 79 member states of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific Nations.

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

Monitoring and protecting the world’s forests is not only important to those directly affected by local communities and economies. Deforestation contributes to climate change, so reforestation can help combat the problem.

According to the United Nations, 10 million hectares (25 million hectares) of the world’s forests are lost every year.

This deforestation accounts for 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In an effort to restore forests and other natural habitats around the world, the United Nations launched the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration last year. This saw countries, companies and other organizations take action to prevent, stop and reverse ecological destruction around the world.

“It’s not enough to say we’re going to renew,” said Yelena Feingold, forestry officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “There needs to be a responsible plan for how the ecosystem will be restored, following up on the investments made on the ground and monitoring the restoration of the ecosystem.”

Yelena Feingold

Yelena Feingold says the goal is to track and reverse deforestation.

This focus on forest management has led to the creation of new digital tools to better collect, sort and use data.

One of these is FAO’s own Framework for Ecological Monitoring (Ferm) website. The site was launched last year and uses satellite images to highlight changes in forests around the world. The maps and data are available to any Internet user, scientist, government official, business organization or member of the public.

The firm’s key data source is the US space agency NASA and its Global Ecosystem Dynamics probe system. Known as Geddy for short, this acronym is read along with the word Jedi from the Star Wars films. And continuing the theme of that series, the tagline is “May the Forest Be With You.”

The technology itself is definitely sci-fi turned into real life. “We shoot laser beams at trees from the International Space Station,” says Laura Duncanson, who helps direct the Geddy project from the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographic Sciences.

International space station

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

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

Maps and data were provided to the firm by Norwegian business Planet Labs, which operates more than 200 camera-equipped satellites. These take about 350 million photos of the Earth’s surface every day, each covering one square kilometer.

Planet Labs can be hired directly by governments and businesses around the world. In addition to monitoring forests, the cameras can monitor everything from drought to agriculture, energy and infrastructure projects, and monitor key infrastructure such as ports.

Remi D’Annunzio, FOO’s forestry officer, said all the images from space “have changed the way we manage forests, because they’re very frequent observations and very frequent visits to places.”

“Essentially, now, when all these publicly available satellites are combined, we can get a complete snapshot of the Earth every four to five days,” he added.

Rangers in Vietnam

Rangers in Vietnam are using Ferm data to crack down on illegal logging.

Examples of how all this can be used through real-time monitoring are pilot schemes in Vietnam and Laos to tackle illegal logging. Rangers and community workers on the ground are alerted to their mobile phones whenever new deforestation is detected.

Now, what we’re really trying to do is understand not only the amount of forest that’s being lost, but specifically where it’s been lost in this district or that area, so that we can track the loss and even actually prevent it. FAO Forestry Officer Akiko Inoguchi says.


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