Cloud-Based Satellite Imaging Program Helps Environmentalists Track Deforestation

Deforestation is a major problem in many areas around the world, especially in Latin America. Unfortunately, despite the high number of nonprofit organizations and government agencies who have attempted to address this issue, finding an effective solution has been challenging. This is due in part to the scarcity of information about environmental trends: after all, rainforests and other endangered areas are not only sizable, but the rate of change in these regions made accuracy near impossible. Experts say that by the time you published an actionable report in previous years, its basic data on forest cover and concessions would be significantly out of date. This not only made it difficult to judge how severe deforestation was becoming, but also rendered private and government agencies from holding companies accountable for the damage they caused.However, a year ago, the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched a new platform that has brought an unprecedented level of accuracy to available data in many parts of the world. Called Global Forest Watch, this online program uses satellite imaging to provide reliable and up-to-date information on forests around the world, as well as to track changes to these areas over time. While the application is still young, users say that the platform serves as the perfect example of how big data, cloud computing, crowdsourcing and other modern techniques can help promote sustainability around the world.


Global Forest Watch is based on a number of modern innovations that have only become widely available in recent years: easy data storage, cloud computing, remote internet connectivity, and more. Access to these technologies and the systems to bring them together were made possible by a coalition of more than 60 nonprofit organizations, corporate partners and governments, among others. For example, Google provides the computing power, storage and software engineering, while the University of Maryland’s department of geographical sciences helped create the first high-resolution map of global forests.

Meanwhile, the multimillion dollar project itself is funded by the Norwegian, American and British governments, as well as a few others. The result is a frequently updated picture of the world’s forests that uses additional information from various agencies and organizations to further add to the amount of available information. Moreover, the project’s software developers regularly add new features, allowing users to track everything from monthly tree cover loss to peatland fires.

Because of these benefits, Global Forest Watch has attracted attention from a wide variety of organizations. The non-profit Forest Heroes, for example, calls Forest Watch a central resource for policing deforestation. Likewise, Cargill, an agricultural and industrial manufacturing company, uses the platform to monitor their suppliers, helping them meet their goal of 100% sustainable palm oil within the next few years. The project has even been used to unmask companies who pay lip service to sustainability while still engaging in harmful practices.

Recently, a London-based company called United Cacao, which claimed to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, was accused of cutting down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon. While the company claimed that the land had been cleared previously, the forestry website Mongabay used Forest Watch’s satellite images to dismiss the statement.

But these might not be the only ways Forest Watch can help the environment. The platform could be extremely helpful to organizations in countries like Venezuela, where the country’s famous oil industry is more vital than ever to its economic health. While economic mismanagement and the falling price of oil in recent months has put pressure on the country’s oil companies and reduced production, Venezuela still reportedly produces 2.4 million barrels of oil a day. With the environmental risks of this process well-documented, Venezuelan environmentalists and concerned foreigners will likely welcome the chance to monitor the country’s forests, which are home to some of the most biodiverse populations in the world.

Despite these many uses, however, the WRI and its partners aren’t done innovating: the organizations are reportedly working to deliver sharper, more timely images and alerts, which would allow groups and agencies respond quickly to developing threats. Meanwhile, environmentalists are also considering how Global Forest Watch could be adapted to help other sustainability issues: for example, nonprofit organizations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are reportedly trying to use the satellite imaging and predictive analytics to halt the slaughter of elephants in Garamba National Parks. Other potential uses include tracking illegal fishing and mapping out illegal working conditions.

As these applications are explored, the expansion of cloud-computing and storage is only expected to help: by 2018, it is predicted that the global market for cloud equipment offered by cloud service broker companies will reach $79.1 billion.