New opening for forest monitoring

Liberia preliminary forest results

Preliminary results Liberia forest mapping and FDA teams conducting ground validation

The game change in effective forest monitoring may have begun decades ago with the first satellites launched into space but certainly the up an coming “data monsters” – European Sentinel satellites – will take it to the brand new level.

Two months ago, on June 23, the European Space Agency (ESA) lifted off the mission called Sentinel-2 – an optical system equipped with 13 spectral bands including near infrared. With two twin satellites in orbit (so called units A and B) the mission will chart the entire globe every five days and – combined with Sentinel 1 and 3 – will capture as much data in five weeks as the previous biggest European environmental satellite – Envisat – has done over the span of five years. With this unprecedented amount of data available globally and free of charge, the system is so powerful that it will revolutionize the way we observe forest and their changes. Its increased frequency and consistency of coverage will finally allow to address unresolved problems with forest degradation monitoring, forest use and drivers of deforestation assessment (including infrastructure and agriculture production development) as well as, for the first time, a comprehensive mapping of the tropical dry forest ecosystems which is dependent on high-density (all-season) and high resolution of observations.

Forest + Willow plantation_RGB_(2015-07-14)

Sentinel 2 data capturing forest and willow plantation in Poland. Credit: ESA

Many countries are currently taking steps to enhance their national forest accounts. They are developing monitoring systems, and take stock of satellite technology solutions. However low capacity and know-how have been often identified as a barrier in using Earth Observation systems in systematic resource management. The experience is showing that the increase in training activities is needed to boost the understanding of EO tools and how to apply them in day-to-day work.

In Europe the capacity building efforts in preparation to Sentinels/Copernicus operation lasted for more than a decade before turning R&D efforts into operational information provision for national authorities, environmental and private sector. The uptake was coupled with development of credible services with formal specifications, standards, validation and involving over 400 public organizations – national users.

Many countries face the same long term challenges to systematize and standardize their  reference mapping, basic forest type assessments and estimation of deforestation, forest degradation, and encroachment. They have also fundamental questions to answer : how can they build on what has already been achieved, where do their information needs fit on the scale from global to local, how the increased technology literacy, social networks and citizen science will shape the future.

One is certain for sure – evolving expectations of require greater transparency in forest management and integration of the latest remote sensing technology into information tools is universally applauded. At the same time large pool of expertise is increasingly available to facilitate the uptake of EO solutions. Global Forest Watch initiative has been leading public awareness of the power of the EO tools. Other examples are mechanisms such as Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), the Norwegian Forest Initiate, or the Forest Investment Program (FIP), just to name few programs that target assistance at credible monitoring, reporting and verification of reduction in deforestation and forest degradation.

Organizations like European Space Agency are also entering partnerships with these programs and actors to share experience and pool resources in order to support development, validation, implementation and operation of forest monitoring systems. For example, collaborating with the World Bank through the FCPF and the Forest Development Authority (FDA), ESA contributed technical expertise to the initiation of the comprehensive and credible forest assessment in Liberia. The initial mapping perfectly demonstrated the added value of satellite-based mapping to the REDD process and was subject to an intensive validation. Reference data were collected in-situ at 63 sites by a team of FDA experts, and other reference data were acquired over an additional 254 locations, to reach the overall thematic accuracy of 90.22%. This new primary data on forest cover development will be a crucial input to the Liberia’s Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment (SESA) forest mapping, which contributes to the REDD+ Readiness process by assessing how REDD+ strategy options address environmental and social priorities associated with current patterns of land use and forest management.

This is the first time in history when satellite information is fed in near real time, at the global scale and in a way which can be instantaneously tailored to explicit information needs. At ESA alone, as part of its Ground Segment Evolution Strategy, new concepts are being developed to meet the corresponding challenges and opportunities to handle (and to afford) the increasing volume, and variety of data required for data-intensive exploration. It involves paradigmatic evolution in data access models which will provide a user community with very fast access to large volume of data (EO/non space data), computing resources (e.g. hybrid cloud/grid), processing software (e.g. toolboxes, RTMs, retrieval baselines, visualization routines), and other collaborative tools, and social networks.  In other words, the paradigm shift will allow “bringing users to data” in more effective way than ever before.

Contributions from Sveinung Loekken and Frank Martin Seifert (ESA, Forest Thematic Exploitation Platform Team), Mats Rosengren (Metria, Liberia Mapping Project)

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Blogpost based on input by Anna Burzykowska – Anna.Burzykowska(at)esa.int
Picture courtesy – Metria/Geoville for WBG/FDA

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