Global tree cover loss between 2000 and 2012. Global Forest Watch/WRI

If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, it might not make a sound – but a new mapping tool from the World Resources Institute aims to put all the eyes of the world on forests everywhere, with near-real time monitoring.

Forests across the world are vanishing at an astonishing rate, but sometimes it’s hard to visualize just how serious the problem is. You might have heard some numbers being thrown around – something like 50 soccer fields’ worth of forest lost every minute, according to one recent study – but this is only the beginning of the story. Just where are forests disappearing, and where are they returning?

Answering those questions is the aim of Global Forest Watch, WRI’s new open-source tool that combines satellite pictures, computer algorithms and crowd-sourced data to provide an up-to-date look at the health of forests across the world. The monitoring system was developed with the help of around 40 partners, including Google, the University of Maryland, and the United Nations Environment Program.

With the mapping tool, “you will be able to zoom into a forest anywhere in the world and see where trees are being lost,” Crystal Davis, the project’s senior manager, said in a phone interview.

But how does it work? Global Forest Watch uses computer algorithms to scan satellite pictures to look for sudden drops or spikes in green vegetation. The tool is pretty sensitive, with a resolution of about 30 meters (just under 100 feet). Whether a stand of trees is felled by logging or fire, or wasted away by disease, the algorithms should be able to pick it up. (It also picks up forest regrowth.)

Deforestation on display in Central Africa. Global Forest Watch/WRI

“We don’t currently have the resolution to pick up the loss of an individual tree or a few trees -- we need to see significant loss,” Davis explains.

You can track the pace of deforestation for an area across time:


Users can sign up for online alerts that will send out an email if there’s an activity within a selected country or area of interest. One of the most valuable uses for this tool, Davis says, is for environmental law enforcement. In Brazil, for example, there are only around 200 officers responsible for combating deforestation in the Amazon. Instead of hunting around for illegal logging or clearing operations, the inspectors can be automatically alerted to developing problems.

Individuals and communities can also keep tabs on their local forests, and even upload pictures and other local data to the mapping tool. Global Forest Watch should also be a big boon for NGOs and environmental groups like Greenpeace, Davis says.

The tool can also help companies adhere to their environmental commitments.

“We think that Global Forest Watch can transform the way companies do business, particularly with supply chains,” Elizabeth Baer, corporate engagement manager for the project, said in a phone interview.

Businesses contribute to deforestation in many ways – trees are cut down for timber, cleared for cattle or development. One of the major engines of deforestation is the flourishing palm oil industry, which can prove lucrative for poor communities in the developing world, but palm trees often elbow out tropical rainforest. But the tide might be turning: many corporations, including Nestle and Unilever, have pledged to cut down on the impact their business has on forests.

“The challenge is that supply chains are often complex and opaque, and forest information can be out of date,” Baer says. “Even companies leading the pack in this don’t have best information to make decisions. But now people can monitor compliance. Similarly, suppliers can demonstrate to customers that their products are deforestation-free; the information will also be available to investors and shareholders.”

The WRI team is already thinking about the future of Global Forest Watch. One important step that they’re looking into is directly integrating the tool with the software that companies use to manage their supply chains. And they’ve made the API for the project available to any developer that wants to take a crack at creating new tools with the data.

“We will need to be continually iterating: adding functions, especially in response to user feedback,” Davis says. “We’ll be continuing to add datasets and adding more tools on the crowdsourcing side.”