Tropical forests represent a vital resource, underpinning the livelihoods of billions of people, storing and cycling large amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as water and hosting a large proportion of global biodiversity.
To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, tropical deforestation must be restricted. Therefore, it is critical that we understand what is happening to forests and whether efforts to preserve them are succeeding. Improving the monitoring of the world’s tropical forests is the aim of the major international Forests 2020 project.
International consortium of experts for Forests 2020
Forests 2020 is led by Edinburgh-based sustainability software and data company Ecometrica, in collaboration with experts from the SPRINT partner universities, Edinburgh and Leicester. Also taking part is the University of Edinburgh spin-out company, Carbomap, which specialises in LiDAR forest mapping – a remote sensing method that uses light to measure variable distances to the Earth.
Ecometrica received £14 million in funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme to develop Forests 2020.
The Forests 2020 consortium also involves partners in Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico, where Earth Observation laboratories have been set up to assess threats to 300 million hectares of tropical rainforests and direct conservation resources.
Universities make key breakthroughs
The project will complete in March 2020 and during this time, Forests 2020 has achieved notable advances in terms of developing and testing new and improved ways of monitoring and understanding forest changes.
Early achievements have included:
• The University of Leicester has developed automated forest-loss detection processing chains using Sentinel 2 (optical) data. They can be used to provide ongoing monitoring of areas subject to deforestation, so that responses can be activated earlier. Ecometrica has developed a similar process using Sentinel 1 (radar) methods, which have the advantage of being able to penetrate cloud cover, which is frequently a problem for optical sensing in the tropics
• A team at the University of Edinburgh has developed improved methods of assessing the risk of forest fires. These assessments can be delivered three to six months in advance, adding to locally available information. Forest fires are one of the main factors in forest degradation, and improved fire management regimes, including controlled burning of dead wood and fire breaks, are likely to be an essential component of climate change resilience strategies.
• The University of Edinburgh has mapped in detail the carbon storage capacity of tropical forest regeneration. These maps help tropical partners to locate the areas where forest protection and planting will be most effective at sequestering carbon, thereby acting to reduce climate change
The Ecometrica view
Sarah Middlemiss, Space Programme Manager at Ecometrica says: “Countries are committing to ambitious targets to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation and increase forest cover, but need the confidence of accurate data to support their policy decisions. Governments, companies and donors need to fully understand the areas of risk/opportunity so that they can channel resources to the areas of most need and potential success for forest restoration. Only then can they look to achieve their ‘net forest positive’ goals.
“We have a long history of working with the University of Edinburgh on forestry projects and on Forests 2020, we’re focusing on risk and opportunity mapping, and improved forest governance. With significant levels of climate data involved across the Forests 2020 project, we need large computing capacity and the University offers supercomputer facilities, plus innovative modelling capabilities and a data assimilation model.”
The University of Edinburgh view
Mathew Williams, Professor of Global Change Ecology at the University of Edinburgh adds: “Forests 2020 is using UK space expertise to support the sustainable management of tropical forests. We’re working with Ecometrica to improve the capacity to monitor changes in forest cover and build better estimates of fire risk, forest loss and forest degradation. Monitoring radar data will enable us to spot changes in forest biomass and make longer-range forecasts.
“The data modelling will show us how forests grow under changing climates and atmospheric environments. We’re understanding how forest growth rates differ and how long will it take for forests to regrow, factoring in potential climate changes.”