Earth observation satellites have been around for nearly four decades, providing information on global resources and environmental change. Public missions, such as NASA’s Landsat mission and the Copernicus Sentinel mission, have catalysed many downstream scientific and industrial applications. It is hard to imagine a field of science or industry that has not benefited from the monitoring Earth observation satellites provide.
In the past few years, the Earth observation industry has begun to change. Satellites are shrinking in size and cost, while simultaneously improving in spatial and temporal resolutions. Commercial missions increasingly complement and interoperate with public missions to provide more insights for downstream scientific and industrial applications. Parallel breakthroughs in cloud computing, machine learning, and software engineering have made Earth observation data applicable to more solutions than ever.
Planet satellites capture forest loss in Thüringer Wald, Germany | Source: Planet Labs Inc.
Forest monitoring is one such area that has benefited from improving Earth observation systems. Planet, a company imaging the full Earth daily, has complemented traditional forest monitoring data by providing high-resolution, high-cadence monitoring at global scales. These datasets have bolstered the United Nations’ monitoring systems for forest and climate commitments; helped the World Bank make forest monitoring more accessible and accurate; supported governments in the Lower Mekong region enforce against illegal deforestation; and assisted commercial forestry companies in realising new efficiencies and cost savings.
In September 2020, Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment (NICFI) awarded an international contract to Kongsberg Satellites Services (KSAT), Planet, and Airbus to provide universal access to commercial Earth observation data to help stop tropical deforestation. Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, notes, “Better insights into what is happening in the rainforests will enhance efforts to protect these priceless ecosystems.”
One area within forest monitoring that is rapidly advancing with the interoperability of public and commercial datasets, and the additional spatial and temporal resolutions this affords, is validating and classifying deforestation alerts. Traditionally, deforestation alerts have been powered by 30m or 10m per pixel satellite data feeds. With universal access to <5m per pixel commercial satellite data feeds now available through the NICFI Satellite Data Program, validating and classifying deforestation alerts is becoming more efficient, accurate, and actionable than ever.
“Equipping governments with scientifically-validated Earth observation datasets is critical to meeting our climate and resource sustainability targets.”
The high-resolution commercial data are now what users choose most on Global Forest Watch, many using this data in tandem with lower resolution alerts to reduce interpretation errors, validate the deforestation event and classify its cause. The United Nations Programme to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and the NASA SERVIR network have successfully used these alerts in tandem with commercial datasets to take action on deforestation and degradation events. Remi D’Annunzio, REDD+ National Forest Monitoring Coordinator for Africa and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, notes, “We were missing a substantial amount of even easy to detect degradation with anything else other than the Planet-NICFI data.”
EU institutions and member states should have access to the best-possible data, from multiple sources, on the state of Europe’s forests and overall biodiversity. In view of the implementation of the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy and the Forest Strategy, a centralised system complemented with commercial data can ensure that change is automatically detected, classified and actionable, down to the individual tree level.
Earth observation technologies have decades of scientific validation, downstream innovation, and economic results. Equipping governments with scientifically-validated Earth observation datasets is critical to meeting our climate and resource sustainability targets.