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Forest conservation efforts branch to outer space

By Breanna Lu and Manasa Sriraj Feb. 3, 2021

Jessica Lin Art

Deforestation has been a major contributor to carbon emissions, loss of animal habitats, land erosion and flash flooding due to increasing global industrialization over the past century. According to National Geographic, forests are disappearing at a rapid rate—losing roughly 1.3 million square kilometers of forest from 1990 to 2016.

Starting in 2016, a NASA Landsat satellite imagery and a tree loss alert program were used to detect and reduce deforestation in countries including Cameroon, Indonesia and Colombia. The two-part Landsat program was designed and implemented by the Global Analysis and Discovery (GLAD), a geographical science laboratory at the University of Maryland that studies the effects of land change on the environment. Researchers at GLAD explore land cover changes using Earth observation imagery to complete mapping and cropland-monitoring projects in South America and investigate land use change in Asia. GLAD has also worked on US government initiatives such as SilvaCarbon, which provides technical help to countries that are developing land monitoring programs.

“It is important to reduce deforestation because forests play a big role in ecosystems and produce oxygen. As the GLAD satellite system continues to improve and adapt, it will hopefully be adopted by more countries with increasing accessibility and effectiveness,” Sophomore Amanda Bui said.

Through the GLAD deforestation program, NASA Landsat satellites take frequent high-resolution images of forest areas. After the images are collected, artificial intelligence compares them to previous photographs to pinpoint where trees are disappearing. Then, the GLAD alert system flags tree loss and delivers automated notifications to the Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online platform that houses forest-monitoring data. To receive customizable and real-time alerts, anyone, including government officials and ordinary citizens, can subscribe, free of charge, to the GLAD program on GFW. Subscribers will receive the notifications, along with 30 meter resolution satellite imagery, of the disturbed forest area. Aside from the warnings, subscribers also receive weekly emails that indicate areas with deforestation and where it is likely to occur.

So far, the GLAD program has been a success in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two years after its introduction, nine African countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic saw an 18 percent decrease in deforestation, as reported by the Good News Network. Subsequent drops in carbon emissions saved African countries from $149 million to $696 million, says Fanny Moffette, who published research on the impact of the GLAD deforestation alerts, found that a drop in deforestation only occurred in areas where environmental protection organizations subscribed to the GLAD alerts. However, in South Africa and Asia, where organizations also subscribed to receive warnings, deforestation did not decrease. According to Moffette, this was because of confounding factors like political disruption or economic turmoil that took precedence over efforts to curb illegal forest clearings.

“It is important to educate people about environmental protection resources and increase government funding for nature conservation programs like GLAD. Aside from deforestation, satellite images can also be used to detect forest fires in their beginning stages so that they can be contained before destroying habitats and nature,” Sophomore Raena Imtiaz said.

According to Yale Environment 360, an online magazine that focuses on remediating global environmental issues—high-resolution satellite images can be used to detect illegal mining, monitor wildlife population and determine the percentage of biomass in various terrains, which enhances animal and land conservation efforts. Additionally, satellite alerts can monitor illegal fishing and regulation of water supplies. Furthermore, satellite images show detailed crop yields, which helps farmers decide which crops require more care.

According to the GFW, important raw materials like wood primarily come from tropical forests. These forests are often destroyed on a large scale to make space for the production of other commodities, such as soybeans, beef and palm oil. In fact, acquiring commodities is responsible for 40 percent of deforestation worldwide. In the long term, deforestation risks the extinction of endangered species, the destruction of biodiversity and the collapse of food chains while also contributing to global warming as trees act as a major carbon sink.

GLAD is one of many environmental protection programs, and as technology advances, there will likely be further efforts to preserve and sustain nature. The program’s success in Africa may also bring awareness to growing environmental concerns and increase support for organizations that work towards the preservation of nature worldwide.


About the Contributors

Breanna Lu

Staff Writer

Breanna Lu is a freshman and a new staff writer. She enjoys binge watching sci-fi movies and her favorite book genre is murder mysteries/crime fiction. In her free time, you will most likely find her asleep or chatting with her friends.

Manasa Sriraj

Staff Writer

Manasa Sriraj is a freshman at Leland High School and a staff writer. She is a STEM, puzzle, and geography freak and loves torturing her friends by spamming and "Rickrolling" on group chats. Her hobbies include listening to music, playing basketball and the guitar, experimenting with snack recipes (which usually result in messes), and building Rube Goldberg machines and gadgets out of Legos and other regular household objects.

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