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Posted on August 2nd, 2016

Fighting Global Deforestation Through Remote Sensing and Cartography: The Story of Global Forest Watch

Global Forest Watch (GFW) is an online forest monitoring platform designed to equip people everywhere with the data they need to better manage and conserve threatened forests. By comparing satellite imagery and other spatial datasets over time, GFW is able to locate and identify areas of suspected recent tree cover loss. Most importantly, GFW is a completely free service, allowing for crowdsourced collaboration between non-profits, governments, academia, grassroots movements and individuals worldwide.

Forest loss detected by Global Forest Watch’s algorithms in the Republic of the Congo. (Credit: Global Forest Watch, NASA/USGS, Urthecast)

By using algorithms that overlay historic and recent imagery from Landsat 7/8 as well as archived data from older satellites, GFW is able to identify areas where deforestation is likely taking place. Through cross-referencing with country-specific information and volunteers on the ground, GFW can then discern whether forest loss in a given area was due to illegal harvesting, fire or other factors. The repercussions of the technology are far-reaching: many of the areas being analyzed are located in remote tropical rainforests or frozen taigas that are otherwise impossible to monitor from the ground or by plane. These isolated and incredibly bio-diverse landscapes are likewise the most heavily deforested ecosystems on Earth, making the need for GFW only more paramount.

Below are two screenshots of GFW’s online interactive mapping service. The first image highlights areas where recent forest loss is believed to have occurred in the jungles of the Republic of the Congo. The second image displays the same area with Landsat imagery layered below the suspected site to validate whether loss did or did not occur. With a human-made clearing visible in the imagery, volunteers in GFW’s online community would now reach out to individuals on the ground in the Republic of the Congo to investigate the site. The web mapping service also allows users to upload their datasets and includes several preloaded datasets. These datasets help volunteers to cross-reference whether an area is, for example, in fact a legal logging concession or indeed an illegal operation.

Global Forest Watch started in 1997 as part of a move to establish a global forest monitoring network, initiated by the World Resources Institute. Since then, its reach has expanded through collaboration with other conservation-oriented organizations around the globe. To learn more about GFW and how to get involved, visit

Fletcher Berryman
(970) 710-0909

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