Big Data Goes Green: How Data Analytics Is Saving the World’s Forests

Spruce Budworms

Big Data’s going mainstream and at the same time it’s rewriting the rules of forestry management. Tree farmers, logging companies, plantations and conservation groups tasked with managing forestry assets can use Big Data analytics to dig up all kinds of insights that can help them achieve their goals of sustainability.

Predictive modeling is nothing new to the forestry industry. For years, its been used to forecast the impact of controlled burns, harvests and other forest management strategies. But until recently it’s been a slow and cumbersome process, involving thousands of man hours spent pouring over custom-made spreadsheets, with a whole lot of guesswork thrown in.

Forestry management presents an opportunity that’s capturing the attention of numerous Big Data companies, including giants like Google, organizations like NASA, and even a few plucky startups as well.

Fighting Deforestation


Google has a hand in most things these days, and while some of its endeavors are more questionable than others, its involvement in the development of the Global Forest Watch 2.0 project can only be commended.

Global Forest Watch 2.0 is an interactive, real-time forest monitoring system run under the auspices of the World Resource Institute that was announced in April of this year. The effort will combine satellite imagery with data collected from remote sensors, together with good, old-fashioned human observation to try and lend a hand to forest management efforts in some of the world’s most at risk areas.

One of the prime targets for Global Forest Watch 2.0 is Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, with the idea being to try and encourage commodities buyers and suppliers to make more informed and environmentally-friendly procurement decisions.

According to Nigel Sizer, director of the Global Forests Initiative for the World Resources Institute, the initiative will help to accelerate deforestation efforts that have already seen considerable success:

“Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon have dropped by 80 percent since 2004. This is in part due to their efforts to improve the quality and availability of information about what is happening to those forests and to make it rapidly available to those who can take action.”

With the aid of Global Forest Watch 2.0, the quality and availability of that information will only improve.

Sensing Creepy Crawlies


Human activity isn’t the only threat to our forests – the behavior of nature’s smallest creatures can have unintended consequences on the landscape too.

Attempting to tease out small events that can cause big changes in our ecosystems is one of the main goals of the little-known LandTrendr program, an initiative led by the US Geological Survey that relies primarily on Landsat data from NASA. This data has been around for a while, but it’s only recently that NASA made it publicly available for anyone to use, and its only even more recently that smaller organizations have possessed the computing power to be able to take advantage of it.

NASA’s Landsat data has been built up over the last forty years by satellites that are constantly photographing the Earth’s surface as they whizz around it in orbit. LandTrendr is an effort to use that data to try and spot small and subtle changes in the Earth’s landscape that take place over many years – changes that can be just as devastating as something like a forest fire, but which often go unnoticed because they happen so slowly, and the culprits are barely visible to the naked eye.

In one example, the US Geological Survey’s Robert Kennedy observed a curious, slow-moving decline and recovery of an area of forestland in the Pacific Northwest forests near Mount Rainier. Detailed investigation of Landsat imagery over several years, followed by a physical inspection revealed the culprits to be bugs – namely, the western spruce budworm, an insect that feeds off of the tree’s needles. The trees don’t always die first time around, but if the budworms return year after year the trees can eventually die from the stress it causes them, and this is exactly what happened in an area near Mount Rainier, Washington.

Curtis Woodcock, a remote sensing specialist at Boston University, said that if the data from LandTrender could be applied in real-time, forestry management efforts would benefit enormously from that:

“The goal in the long run is to be able to provide land managers information on what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s a process that’s just getting started.”

Adding Value to Sustainable Forests


NASA isn’t the only space agency lending a (inadvertent) hand to forest preservation – the European Space Agency (ESA) has embarked on a similar endeavor. Not long ago it agreed a $1 million deal with the plucky Ireland-based startup Treemetrics to launch a hugely ambitious project to monitor forests all over the globe.

The plan is to combine Treemetrics unique 3D laser scanning technology that’s capable of measuring the height, straightness, taper, and volume of the trees in a section of forest with the ESA’s satellite data to provide a clear picture of the state of the world’s forests.

Treemetrics uses the ESA imagery to analyze the world’s forests and spot missing trees – something that usually indicates illegal logging activity, disease, or some kind of pest-led destruction like the LandTrendr team stumbled across. The technology can be used to combat these threats to our forests, but more than that they can help create value for sustainable logging operations. Treemetrics software involves using 3D laser scanners that emit laser pulses which bounce back when they come into contact with objects in the immediate vicinity, allowing forest managers to gather millions of data points for a 30-meter square area of forest. Using this data, they can then construct accurate 3D models of that forest, and this accuracy means that fewer trees can be cut down at any one time, thus maximizing value.

Treemetrics system is currently deployed in sustainable forests in Australia, Ireland, Norway, the UK and the US, and is said to reduce forest measurement costs by up to 75%.

Watch this video to learn more about how Treemetrics is helping to sustain our forests: