Hi-Tech Google Map Shows Frightening Pace of Global Deforestation

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 15, 2013 11:13 AM EST

Deforestation Progression Over a 12 Years
Withe the help of NASA satellite photos and a Google Maps platform, University of Maryland geographers generated this picture of global deforestation. (Photo: University of Maryland)

Globally, more than 2.3 million square kilometers of forest were lost during the last 12 years, a dramatic map generated by the University of Maryland, NASA, and Google revealed Thursday.

With a spatial resolution of 30 meters (about 33 yards), the map offers an eye-popping collage of about 650 thousand NASA satellite images taken between 2000 and 2012. Previous forest mapping efforts via satellite have been at much lower resolutions. Closer resolutions should help shape deforestation policy on the local level, said Dr. Matthew Hansen, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland, who worked with Google and the State University of New York, South Dakota State University, Woods Hole Research Center, and the United States Geological Survey to generate the maps.  

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The interface is similar to that of Google Maps, and uses the Google Earth Engine platform. The resulting interactive images provide a picture of forest loss in chilling detail from 2000 to 2012, as revealed in an article published in Science magazine Thursday.   

The rate at which forests were dissipating in most tropical countries is dramatic, Dr. Hansen told International Science Times. "That was kind of startling: The really, really intensive decrease of forests is greater than by one percent a year in some of these countries," Dr. Hansen said, alluding to Paraguay, Bolivia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Zambia, and Angola, among others. "It is so alarming and compelling and, just, well, wow," he added.

More than 2.3 million square kilometers (888 thousand square miles) of forest were lost worldwide during those 12 years, though 0.8 million square kilometers (309 thousand square miles) of new forest sprung up in the same timeframe. The map confirms that Brazil's dense rate of deforestation. Indeed, by coincidence the Brazilian government announced on Thursday a 28 percent spike in the rate of deforestation in 2012.

The map doesn't just dramatize deforestation from human forces, but from natural forces as well, Dr. Hansen said. "We saw forests in China  on the map moving, and said to each other, 'What's that?' Then we realized it was the result of the massive earthquake in 2008. Forests just fell off mountains: Boom, big change, just a whole mountaintop removal." 

Environmentalists worldwide can use the map to help track the effectiveness of policies that protect forest areas and monitor the health of both the forests and the ecosystems they host. The geographical scientists plan to update the map annually as data streams down from NASA's Landsat 8 satellite. The goal, ultimately, is to get the data out of the sky and into the hands of the right people. Indeed, Dr. Hansen told International Science Times that he wants everyone in the world to have access to the images. He's working on having the entire map set available to anyone with Internet access by early next year.

"There's a really rich data set to explore," Dr. Hansen said. "People will use it very creatively and effectively. There's a lot of stories to be told with this data."

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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