This month a team of scientists published a paper in Science that quantifies global forest change, releasing a phenomenal online resource that is both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.
The scientists from the University of Maryland used Earth observation satellite data to map global forest cover, discovering that while there had been a gain of 0.8 million square kilometers over twelve recent years (2000-12), almost three times as much forest cover had been lost (2.3 million square kilometers) in the same period.
Data on the high resolution (30m resolution) interactive map, powered by Google, are beautiful to look at, and the amount of forest, shown by green around the Earth, is awe-inspiring. The UK appears dark in colour given its sparse forest cover (read more) but zoom in and it is possible to see the relatively stable forest cover across much of the country, and even the activities of felling and replanting (shown by purple) in southern Scotland.
Elsewhere, hotspots of forest cover loss are easy to spot in red. Tropical forests exhibited a significant trend in forest loss, with rates of loss increasing by 2101 km² per year, with Boreal forests experiencing the second greatest loss of forest cover. Specific geospatial impacts can be seen on the map when zooming into some areas. One example highlighted by the authors is of Borneo, where Malaysia to the west has logged much of its land, the patterns of forest loss clearly following logging roads, while to east in Indonesia the forests look relatively stable. Another example shows loss of Boreal forest cover from man-made fires in Yakutsk.
Seen in this way, losses of forest cover are represented very powerfully. Not as much of course as when witnessed on the ground, as in the destruction of wildlife habitat, or impact on the livelihoods of indigenous people, but perhaps in a way that may help those working strategically to reduce deforestation, giving them potent visual statistics to support their vital work.
Hansen et al. (2013) High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change. Science, Vol. 342 no. 6160 pp. 850-853. View abstract