October 3, 2018

Satellite and Survey: Measuring the Rainforest

It’s May 2010. Armed with a tin of paint and a GPS tracker, the chief of Camatavashi community helps the Cool Earth field team walk the partnership boundary and mark the trees under their protection. Back in the UK, this information is painstakingly recorded using mapping software. 

Fast forward eight years, and Cool Earth can present satellite images of Camatavashi’s canopy back to the community.

The images show intense, agriculturally driven deforestation reaching almost exactly up to the border of the community. It’s a wakeup call to both parties. It’s never been more important to work together to stop logging.

The dark blue highlighted area on this map is the partnership area. The red represents deforestation since our partnership started. The blue represents deforestation in the decade before that.

The meeting of data and space

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a way of describing something that maps data onto geographic space. A road atlas is one example of the product of GIS. It is the mapping of road coordinates (data) onto the earth’s surface (geography). Another example is using data that comes from satellites to learn more about changes on Earth.

So as well as getting us from A to B, GIS can show us how effective our work is over time, and the impact Cool Earth’s interventions are having on canopy cover.

When Cool Earth was founded ten years ago, satellite data was expensive and difficult to use. Today there is more data, and it’s more freely available. Landsat has been gathering satellite imagery of Earth since 1972, allowing us to observe historic trends. Sentinel provides higher resolution data from European Space Agency satellites as part of a wider Earth observation program. Planet, a private company which boasts a fleet of about 150 low-earth satellites, are able to provide an even higher image resolution. Their satellites are controlled and received from Goonhilly Earth Station just round the corner from Cool Earth’s head office in Cornwall.

Cool Earth can use this wealth of data to look at canopy loss in rainforest partnerships. It can help us assess our impact over time, but also allow us to investigate any apparent canopy loss in real time, and report back to the community.

Peru rainforest community

Beyond Canopy Cover

One of the most exciting things about the data and technology that’s available today is its ability to measure other things beside canopy cover.

The Carnegie Airborne Observatory has used satellite information to look at carbon in Peru. They found enormous variation in carbon stocks, and were also able to map the impact humans are having on forest carbon dioxide emissions. 

Biodiversity can also be mapped to a high level using satellite data. Using technology that shows biodiversity in colour, the spectacularly varied image of Cool Earth’s Asháninka partnership looks markedly different to the muted tones of a monoculture palm plantation.

Satellite image of rainforest - biodiversity monitoringBy adding this kind of insight to our other monitoring methods such as household survey data, images from camera traps, and other tools, we can begin to get really detailed picture of Cool Earth’s impact. And as technology improves alongside our own skills and knowledge improves, that picture will become even richer.

Cool Earth | Aerial drone footage of rainforest in Papua New Guinea
Camatavishi’s forest has a bright future thanks to Cool Earth’s supporters.
And thanks to satellites and smart technology, we’ll be able to see it in technicolour.


  • MargaretSheppard says:

    I just made a donation of £100 but I don’t think I was asked about Gift Aid – I do qualify as I am a regular UK taxpayer if you wish to claim the extra.
    Margaret Sheppard

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