A Growing Initiative: The Progress and Future of the Global Forest Observation Initiative

EarthzineEarth Observation, Original

In an interview with Earthzine, Dr. Doug Muchoney shared a look into his experience with the GFOI so far.

Hemispherical Photo— Meadows spring weather station site, Shenandoah National Park. Image Credit: Cindy Cunningham, USGS.

Hemispherical Photo— Meadows spring weather station site, Shenandoah National Park. Image Credit: Cindy Cunningham, USGS.

‰ÛÏWhat I like best about it is the camaraderie.‰Û

You don’t have to talk with Dr. Doug Muchoney for very long to discover his enthusiasm. Based at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Virginia, Muchoney is the U.S. representative for the Global Forest Observation Initiative (GFOI). In an interview with Earthzine, he shared a look into his experience with the GFOI so far.

The GFOI originated through the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), an international organization formed in 2002 to facilitate coordination of Earth observation data and address environmental concerns.åÊOne of GFOI’s principal objectives is to build capacity for developing countries to use EO data to assist forest inventories and monitoring programmes as a means of providing input to national Measurement, Reporting and Verification as part of the UN REDD+ (United Nations collaborative programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) as well on reliable reporting to the UNFCCC.GFOI

Through a process involving participating member states and contributing organizations of GEO, forests were highlighted as an important area of focus for multiple reasons. They shelter hot spots of biodiversity, provide important ecosystem services, and have a significant impact on atmospheric budgets. Furthermore, forests play an important role in the carbon cycle — serving as a living form of carbon storage, or releasing carbon when they die. With increasing concern over the global carbon cycle in relation to climate change, in 2008 this impetus led to a GEO-related project, known as the Forest Carbon Tracking (FCT) project, designed to investigate the role forests play in carbon storage and climate change mitigation.

The FCT’s intent was to create a sustainable system that would coordinate satellite data from multiple providers and create consistent guidelines for the processing and use of data.

Forests are monitored in many ways, and even defining what a forest is can be complicated, as Muchoney, who has experience in forest monitoring, describes:

‰ÛÏ[People] don’t understand how complex the word forest is. There are so many definitions of what a forest is, what a tree is. Then you throw in the remote sensing part of it, what is a forest that is definable by a satellite, using these sorts of pattern-recognition techniques ‰Û_ it gets complicated.‰Û

Monitoring forests involves measuring them, and estimating: spatial extent (forest loss and gain); above-ground biomass (woody biomass vs. foliage), canopy height and stand structure, stocking density, and much more. These parameters are used for forest management and planning and are used as inputs into model to estimate forest productivity and carbon uptake for GHG inventories. Increasingly, forest degradation (loss in forest productivity) is also becoming an important aspect of forest monitoring programs and satellite data are being used for this purpose, in particular radar data.

Methods for how these studies are carried out, however, can vary widely from country to country or even between different departments within the same country.åÊ This is where the need for an organization such as the GFOI came in.

The original program, the FCT, created ‰ÛÏnational demonstrators‰Û to model how remote sensing could be used to track changes in forest size and location and to estimate carbon storage. But an organized, international means of sharing and coordinating this data was absent. Furthermore, some developing countries with critical forest habitat lacked the technology or processing data to monitor their own forests effectively. To help meet those needs, in 2010 the GEO Plenary formally approved the Global Forest Observations Initiative Task Force (GFOI)—of which the FCT still forms the research and capacity building components.

As of 2014, 12 demonstrator nations have joined the original NGOs and lead nations of the GFOI: Australia (Tasmania), Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia (Borneo), Mexico, Nepal, Peru, and Tanzania.

The formation of the GFOI, Muchoney explains, coincided with other pre-existing projects. During this nascent phase, Muchoney was the USGS representative to the GEO Secretariat at the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva:

‰ÛÏAs I was preparing to come back to the United States, colleagues in the international forest sector said, ‰Û÷Gee Doug, it would be really great if when you got back to the United States if you could help consolidate the U.S. contribution to GEO Forests.’ I said, ‰Û÷Sure.’‰Û

Dr. Douglas Muchoney working on a weather station. Image Credit: Cindy Cunningham , USGS.

Dr. Douglas Muchoney working on a weather station. Image Credit: Cindy Cunningham , USGS.

It was fortuitous timing. The USGS was already engaged in such efforts, and U.S President Barack Obama had made a declaration in Copenhagen, committing the nation to financial support of fast track funding for climate change research.

Muchoney initially proposed a project called the Virtual Technical Centers for Forests and Terrestrial Carbon (VTC). The project was eventually dubbed with the less technical name SilvaCarbon and represents a convergence of work from a variety of U.S. departments and services. SilvaCarbon is now the U.S. contribution to the GFOI, and with it came Muchoney as the U.S. representative.

Members of the GFOI contribute in different ways, using plans developed by the GFOI Steering Committee. Since 2010, this committee has outlined five key components for governance structure:

1. Coordination of satellite data supply

2.åÊCapacity building

3. Methods and guidance documentation

4. Research and development plan

5. Administration and coordination.

These five components work together to meet the GFOI’s goals:

‰Û¢ To ‰ÛÏfoster the sustained availability of observations for national forest monitoring systems.”

‰Û¢ To ‰ÛÏsupport governments that are establishing national systems.”

‰Û¢ To ‰ÛÏwork with national governments that report into international forest assessments.‰Û

According to Muchoney, achieving these goals requires coordination and planning but is also a rewarding prerogative. One of the most successful projects of the GFOI is the push by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) for sharing of already gathered satellite data (both optical and active).

Muchoney explains, ‰ÛÏCEOS stepped up and said, ‰Û÷If you want to help developing countries in creating forest monitoring programs, they’re going to need these data. CEOS includes most all the national space agencies, as well as commercial suppliers of data. So they asked NASA and the USGS and the European space agencies, Japan, Canada, Brazil, to provide data to these [other] countries and to offer experience on data delivery and how to fit it into their national programs.‰Û

Several countries jumped on board with the idea quickly, encouraging others to do likewise. The result is that ‰ÛÏdata sharing is becoming a self-perpetuating system,‰Û he says.

The willingness to share data is matched, if not surpassed, by an eagerness to receive it, and the amount of data available is vast:

‰ÛÏWe had been delivering data, just shipping it, because of the volume of it. We have massive data sets. USGS physically delivered over two terabytes of data to Thailand and Cambodia.‰Û

Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Image Credit: Jesse Allen, Robert Simmon, and Michael Taylor, NASA, Landsat.

Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Image Credit: Jesse Allen, Robert Simmon, and Michael Taylor, NASA, Landsat.

Not all initiatives have progressed as smoothly as the satellite data sharing, however. One important early lesson involved learning who to contact in demonstrator countries.

Another challenge for the GFOI was avoiding was the creation of a top-heavy system where just a few large nations would provide all of the data and research. Therefore, GFOI programs sought to provide training where skills and tools would be offered to allow participating countries to move to community-based monitoring. Many communities have successfully joined the process.

For Muchoney’s organization, SilvaCarbon, one success story springs from South America. SilvaCarbon partnered with people in the Andes in Columbia, in Ecuador and in Peru, primarily to provide training in data analysis and techniques, radar or optical data processing, and how to establish community-based monitoring. One training session in Ecuador involved the community by flying a quad copter with a camera to help survey an indigenous farmer’s plot.

So how will the data being gathered by these and other GFOI projects be used?

‰ÛÏOne data set serves many purposes‰Û is practically the unofficial motto for GEO, and it seems applicable to the GFOI data as well. How the data are used on a community-level is largely determined by need and those needs vary widely.

In spite of the widespread use of its data and its growing number of projects, the GFOI is still an initiative in progress.

Like a young tree, the GFOI is adding layers and spreading new branches rapidly. Between creating manuals for good practice, training new monitoring experts, continuing research and development and coordinating massive amounts of data, there is a lot to be done.åÊ But Muchoney is optimistic.

‰ÛÏWhen we get the group together, and we’re sharing experiences of this work in Borneo, and that work in the Amazon ‰Û_ You’re building a club!”

‰ÛÏI like that we’re all pushing in the same direction and how much they really care. They’re excited about it. They’re excited about their technology. They’re excited about what they’re doing. Just being a part of that is pretty cool.‰Û