Deforestation is a challenge facing the entire world – technology can help.  Satellites, long used for military purposes but are now being used to protect the environment  – to preserve our forests and our future.

Logging - Amazon

Satellites: From War to Environmentalism

The human race entered a new technological era when Sputnik I was launched into space by the Russians in the middle of the 20th century. Humanity could finally get a better understanding of its home – but that was not the aim at the time. 

Although, in the beginning, the concept of satellite technology was fuelled by the military ambitions of two opposing  it inevitably led to a whole new field of study. The possibilities were endless, slowly but surely, satellite technology has been upgraded and improved over the last few decades. From just being able to record the atmospheric conditions to being able to peer through space and send messages to other space craft’s millions of miles away. Satellites have been equipped with a wide range of equipment to help produce accurate and detailed data on the Earth and all the processes happening on the planet. This allows governments and scientists to manage the environment better.

 

Over the years, many different types of satellites have been launched into space, such as:

  • Navigation satellites, used as global positioning systems, allow devices to identify their exact location anywhere in the world.
  • Weather and climate satellites, fitted with instruments such as synthetic aperture radars, used to observe weather patterns on the planet to accurately predict weather conditions day or night even see through clouds.
  • Earth observation satellites used to take optical images of the Earth that when analysed, the data obtained can help guide business and organisations to make sound business decisions.

All of these and many other satellite variations have been built and launched into space to help further humanity’s ambition to unravel the mysteries of the planet and the stars.

 

Over the years many other aerial observation platforms have also been tested. Aeroplanes and drones have been a popular choice for many years. While they are great at close range, they can never match the volumes of data and land coverage that satellites produce. The global perspective drones provide is unmatched by any other technology.

 

 Protecting the planet

The satellite data, once collected and analyzed, can be used in the management of the environment and protection of land and oceans.  The Earth has a very delicate ecosystem. Everything must work together for the planet to survive. In the sea, 70 per cent of our oxygen is produced by plankton and other various oceanic plants. Satellite technology provides insight into our oceans by monitoring the spread of algae blooms and plankton. They are also monitoring pollution levels in the seas in order to assess the environmental damage caused by human activities. They can even track and spot oil spills by ships and other deep-water vessels.

 

Deforestation and Extinction

On the land, over one million species of plants and animals are under constant threat of extinction. This is primarily due to human encroachment into their natural habitats, overhunting, and the rise of pollution emissions from industrial complexes that are too close to their homes. Forests are also often described as the lungs of the planet. They provide humans and animals with oxygen and food and also help reduce the effects of global warming. While rainforests take up just 3% of the Earth, they store up to 25% of the Earth’s carbon and play host to around 50% of the terrestrial land species. Protecting them from fires and logging has therefore been made a top priority for many governments and humanitarian organisations.

 

With the latest satellite technology and innovative analytics, HSAT helps provide insight in the form of reports, dashboards, and alerts so that businesses can have access to the right information at the right time.

 

Deforestation

One of the biggest problems causing environmental degradation on land is deforestation. An estimate of 46 to 50 thousand square miles of forest is ploughed down each year. One of the worst affected regions is Rondônia, where 2.9 million hectares of tree cover was lost between 2000 and 2012. According to National Geographic, the planet’s rain forests will be obliterated within the next 100 years. Taking swift action to avoid this result is of paramount importance.

 

Amazon Deforesation

Using satellite technology, it is possible to track topographical changes in a wide area of land using imaging systems that analyse and identify minute changes in the area over time. For instance, the visual impact of building a new logging road in a big forest may not be noticeable to the human eye. Still, as the satellite increases its revisit times over time, it can detect this change in the landscape. This information can help governments and activist groups to prevent more damage.

 

Global Forest Watch

A great example of the data and information available can be found at Global Forest Watch. GFW makes masses of satellite driven data available to the public on an open-access basis. Whether you are a journalist, an activist, an NGO, or merely interested in deforestation, you will find all the latest facts and figures quickly at your fingertips. Their dashboard is an invaluable tool.

 

In the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, the government has used satellite technology to help manage deforestation for many decades. In the 1990s and 2000s, the rainforest was losing an estimated 20,000 square miles of forest per year from illegal logging, human encroachment, farming, and land developers. After pressure from the public, the government then launched an action plan for the prevention and control of deforestation in the Amazon. This was achieved by creating an extensive network of national and state parks and establishing protected territories for indigenous groups living in the forest. They also launched a satellite monitoring system to help them in continually monitoring the forest.

 

Taking a global perspective

Environmentally conscious countries such as Norway are leading the way with investment in satellite technologies. Since 2008, Norway has invested $1.2billion in Brazil’s Amazon fund and has recently made payments to Indonesia. Taking a global perspective on investment helps protect the entire planet for generations to come. It is no longer good enough for countries to only protect their land; it is a global challenge.

 

Satellites: Sentinel-2 and Landsat

Satellites have long been used to observe clearcutting as it has gutted the southern Amazon region. Environmental criminals have cleared 20% of the rainforest that once existed, making use of axes, fire, and heavy machinery. The satellites provide environmental scientists with unparalleled oversight of this destruction. Scientists are now able to tell how deforestation has occurred over the last few decades.

 

The most popular system for monitoring deforestation patterns is NASA’s Landsat. Landsat has been able to capture images of the entire Amazon region every fortnight for the last 47 years. With these accurate and clear images, one can detect even the smallest bushfire or newly developed clearing. Scientists have also been able to examine how the Amazon ecosystems co-exist and how they react to fresh deforestation. The European Space Agency Sentinel-2 twin satellite mission was launched between 2015 and 2017. The data it produces is also vital to monitoring the world’s forests and oceans. Although the resolution is low at around 20m, it is suitable for identifying changing land uses, water monitoring,

 

Forest Fires

Another major global problem is the continuing prevalence of forest fires. Thanks to global warming, this phenomenon is becoming more of a problem every year. Some fires are caused naturally, while others are man-made. Satellites are helping to monitor fires closely, and even helping to identify the source. The data is critical to directing firefighting teams and making evacuation decisions. In Australia, over 3 billion animals were lost in the 2020 forest fires. Fires are not limited to just one region. Wildfires in California are also on the rise and are now over 500% larger than in previous years. The Amazon does not escape either. In August 2019 alone, there were 30,000 fires in the Amazon Rainforests. Luckily, the US NOAA GOES satellites can track and predict forest fires, in some cases before they even ignite.

 

Satellite Images of Burning Amazon Forests
Satellite Images of Burning Amazon Forests

When forests are destroyed, the homes for many hundreds of species are destroyed. Endangered species such as Orangutan’s and Jaguars are examples of how human greed can lead to near extinction. There are now just 7,500 Orangutan’s and 15,000 Jaguar’s left in the wild. As well as deforestation, poachers are still attracted by big rewards for unusual catches. Satellite technology is also being used to help the fight against poaching in the wilds of Africa, South America, and Asia.

Sumatran orangutans
Sumatran orangutans

 

ESG and Carbon Credit Policing

A lesser-known, but very important use of satellites is in the monitoring and management of carbon credits. ESG is becoming more and more important, and carbon credit schemes are becoming commonplace. It is no longer acceptable for industry to ignore their impact on the environment. Carbon credit schemes typically consist of several ways to trade credits. This can be financial or by actively participating in the delivery of environmentally friendly projects. Unfortunately, as with any scheme that involves money, less honest characters exploited the loopholes, and in some cases fraudulently traded credits. The use of satellites allows carbon credit schemes to be effectively monitored and enforced. One well-known example of this dishonest behaviour occurred in 2010 when a UK based carbon trading company colluded with officials in Liberia who failed to protect their forests. It was later found one-fifth of Liberia’s forests had been lost during the period of the scheme. Satellite evidence helped justify the establishment of a presidential investigative committee, who recommended several prosecutions in relation to the fraud.

 

Deforesatation for Rubber
Deforestation Due to Rubber Plantations

The Future

Developments in satellite technology are occurring all the time. Moore’s law continues to allow more technology to be squeezed into a small space. One of the most significant upcoming technologies that will impact satellite availability, however, is not related to the satellites themselves. Developments in Machine Learning and the widespread availability of incredibly fast GPU’s is making the task of analysing data from the satellites much quicker and easier. Small organisations and private individuals now have the processing power required to train ML models available at an affordable price. Supercomputers handled by teams of University Researchers are no longer required. A desktop PC with a top of the range GPU will open many new avenues and areas of research. This will allow environmental NGO’s and concerned individuals to perform meaningful analysis on the masses of open access data sent from the satellites. This is sure to result in a much better-managed ecosystem.

 

The development of reusable rockets is also likely to result in significantly more satellites in space due to the significantly reduced launch costs. This will undoubtedly lead to more specific satellite projects and the ability to monitor more of the Earth on a more regular basis.

 

Final thoughts

The applications of satellite data are truly endless. Every day, scientists work to improve their capabilities and functions to serve humanity better. There is so much we do not know or understand about our world, in particular the oceans. Thanks to satellites we are now able to carefully manage and control the planet’s destiny.