Why is our wildlife in trouble? Because we’re ignoring science

by Emma Burns
Cattle drovers have won back the right to graze livestock in the Australian Alps – against scientists’ advice. AAP Image/Bob Richardson

From reef dredging, to shark culling, to opening old-growth forests to logging, environmental policies are leaving Australia’s wildlife exposed to threats. The reason, we propose, is that society and government are often ignoring science – particularly ecology.

In a recently published book, more than 80 Australian environment professionals looked at what we have learned from studying ecosystems.

This book is based on long-term field research in numerous ecosystems. From this research, there are examples of science both being used and ignored in management and policy.

There is some good news. Forest studies have led to more sustainable forestry in Tasmania, and potentially soon in Victoria. And new restoration techniques are being trialed to protect endangered woodlands in the Australian Capital Territory.

But there’s still a long way to go. Here are three examples where science is seemingly being ignored by current environmental policy.

Alpine grazing

Under a trial approved by the federal government, cattle are now once again grazing in the Alpine National Park.

There is no scientific case for the trial. Since the 1940s scientists have been monitoring the alpine ecosystems.

For instance we know that hard-hooved animals such as cattle, sheep, horses, deer and pigs have significant negative impacts. These include changes to species composition, ecosystem dynamics, and fewer herbs such as Billy Buttons and Snow-daisies.

These studies also clearly demonstrate that grazing by domestic livestock does not reduce the frequency or severity of fire in the Australian alps, and can actually increase the risk of fire, as grazing encourages growth of flammable shrubs.

As a consequence of these studies, grazing of sheep and cattle had been phased out of most alpine areas. It poses a clear threat to the alpine ecosystem and natural heritage values of Alpine National Park, and we know that when grazing stops, the alpine ecosystems recover — albeit slowly, and future recovery is unlikely to be as robust as past recovery because environmental conditions are changing.

Alpine Billy Button Photo by Henrik Wahren

Culling fruit bats

Queensland and New South Wales are currently culling fruit bats, despite evidence that culls do not reduce health risks or work.

The threatened spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), targeted as part of the culls, also falls under conservation regulations and provides free services for human society, such as dispersal of pollen and seeds. But many humans fear them because of Hendra virus, and dislike them because urban camps are smelly and noisy, and because they damage commercial fruit crops.

Spectacled Flying-foxes Photo by A. McKeown

Regular calls are made for their conservation status to be downgraded and for management interventions such as camp removal and culling to be adopted. But a ten-year study that we referred to of the habits of spectacled flying foxes demonstrates that apparently simple solutions like moving or destroying camps will ultimately fail because the species is nomadic — naive individuals are always arriving at camps meaning that camps easily re-establish at the site or nearby.

The often repeated claims that flying-fox populations are exploding are also not supported by the research.

Forest management

Recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that too much forest is locked away from logging and blames “green ideology” for this. We don’t need ideology driving decision making about forest management but more science would be good.

Research on the effects of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria shows that a decline in hollow bearing trees, which is leading to declines in some fauna, has been linked to these high severity fires and a long history of timber harvesting. On the basis of this research, as well as economic factors, there is a public campaign to change this area’s land tenure from State Forest to National Park.

Professor David Lindenmayer proposes a Giant Forest National Park

However this research is specific to forests in Victoria, and the story may be different in other forest systems. Each system in question needs independent research.

How do we get more science in policy?

Environmental scientists, researchers and policy-makers have a “social imperative” to increase scientific knowledge in policy. Alongside our work on ecosystems, we developed a policy handbook to guide policy makers. And we encourage more ecologists, and their institutions, to distill and communicate their science in similar ways.

It’s not too late, but scientist and policy-makers need to work together and act with the urgency, scale and intelligence needed to meet our environmental challenges.

The book and policy handbook referred to in this article were supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network. TERN has catalysed collaborations between researchers dedicated to ecological research but who would have been unlikely to work together without support from TERN.

Source: http://theconversation.com/why-is-our-wildlife-in-trouble-because-were-ignoring-science-27226

Pastoral Icon or Woolly Menace?

by Richard Coniff

You don’t have to look far to see the woolly influence of sheep on our cultural lives. They turn up as symbols of peace and a vaguely remembered pastoral way of life in our poetry, our art and our Christmas pageants. Wolves also rank high among our cultural icons, usually in connection with the words “big” and “bad.” And yet there is now a debate underway about substituting the wolf for the sheep on the (also iconic) green hills of Britain.

The British author and environmental polemicist George Monbiot has largely instigated the anti-sheep campaign, which builds on a broader “rewilding” movement to bring native species back to Europe. Until he recently relocated, Mr. Monbiot used to look up at the bare hills above his house in Machynlleth, Wales, and seethe at what Lord Tennyson lovingly called “the livelong bleat / Of the thick-fleeced sheep.” Because of overgrazing by sheep, he says, the deforested uplands, including a national park, looked “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.”

Photo

CreditAnders Nilsen

“I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Mr. Monbiot admits, in his book “Feral.” “I hate them.” In a chapter titled “Sheepwrecked,” he calls sheep a “white plague” and “a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.”

The thought of all those sheep — more than 30 million nationwide — makes Mr. Monbiot a little crazy. But to be fair, sheep seem to lead us all beyond the realm of logic. The nibbled landscape that he denounces as “a bowling green with contours” is beloved by the British public. Visitors (including this writer, otherwise a wildlife advocate) tend to feel the same when they hike the hills and imagine they are still looking out on William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” Even British conservationists, who routinely scold other countries for letting livestock graze in their national parks, somehow fail to notice that Britain’s national parks are overrun with sheep.

Mr. Monbiot detects “a kind of cultural cringe” that keeps people from criticizing sheep farming. (In part, he blames children’s books for clouding vulnerable minds with idyllic ideas about farming.) Sheep have “become a symbol of nationhood, an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God,” he writes. Much of the nation tunes in ritually on Sunday nights to BBC television’s “Countryfile,” a show about rural issues, which he characterizes as an escapist modern counterpart to pastoral poetry. “If it were any keener on sheep,” he says, “it would be illegal.”

The many friends of British sheep have not yet called for burning Mr. Monbiot at the stake. But they have protested. “Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry,” Phil Bicknell, an economist for the National Farmers Union pointed out. “Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn” — or $1.7 billion — “to U.K. agriculture.” The only wolves he wanted to hear about were his own Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. A critic for The Guardian, where Mr. Monbiot contributes a column, linked the argument against sheep, rather unfairly, to anti-immigrant nativists, adding “sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons.”

Mr. Monbiot acknowledges the antiquity of sheep-keeping in Britain. But the subjugation of the uplands by sheep, he says, only really got going around the 17th century, as the landlords enclosed the countryside, evicted poor farmers, and cleared away the forests from the hillsides and moorlands, particularly in Scotland. Britain is, he writes, inexplicably choosing “to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm.” The sheep wouldn’t be in the uplands at all, he adds, without annual taxpayer subsidies, which average £53,000 per farm in Wales.

navidad-2050

He proposes an end to this artificial foundation for the “agricultural hegemony,” to be replaced by a more lucrative economy of walking and wildlife-based activities. He also argues for bringing wolves back to Britain, for reasons both scientific (“to reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking”) and romantic (wolves are “inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors”). But he acknowledges that it would be foolish to force rewilding on the public. “If it happens, it should be done with the consent and active engagement of the people who live on and benefit from the land.”

Elsewhere in Europe, the sheep are in full bleating retreat, and the wolves are resurgent. Shepherds and small farmers are abandoning marginal land at an annual rate of roughly a million hectares, or nearly 4,000 square miles, according to Wouter Helmer, co-founder of the group Rewilding Europe. That’s half a Massachusetts every year left open for the recovery of native species.

Wolves returned to Germany around 1998, and they have been spotted recently in the border areas of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. In France, the sheep in a farming region just over two hours from Paris suffered at least 22 reported wolf attacks last year. But environmentalists there say farmers would do better protesting against dogs, which they say kill 100,000 sheep annually. Wolves are now a protected species across Europe, where their population quadrupled after the 1970s. Today an estimated 11,500 wolves roam there.

Lynx, golden jackals, European bison, moose, Alpine ibex and even wolverines have also rebounded, according to a recent study commissioned by Rewilding Europe. Mr. Helmer says his group aims to develop ecotourism on an African safari model, with former shepherds finding new employment as guides. That may sound naïve. But he sees rewilding as a realistic way to prosper as the European landscape develops along binary lines, with urbanized areas and intensive agriculture on one side and wildlife habitat with ecotourism on the other.

In northern Scotland, Paul Lister is working on an ecotourism scheme to bring back wolves and bears on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve, where he has already planted more than 800,000 native trees. He still needs government permission to keep predators on a proposed 50,000-acre fenced landscape. That’s a long way from introducing them to the wild, on the model of Yellowstone National Park. Even so, precedent suggests that it will be a battle.

Though beavers are neither big nor bad, a recent trial program to reintroduce them to the British countryside caused furious public protest. (One writer denounced “the emotion-based obsession with furry mammals of the whiskery type.”) And late last year, when five wolves escaped from the Colchester Zoo, authorities quickly shot two of them dead. A police helicopter was deployed to hunt and kill another, and a fourth was recaptured. Prudently, the fifth wolf slunk back into its cage, defeated.

Rewilding? At least for now, Britain once again stands alone (well, alone with its 30 million sheep) against the rising European tide.

The real cost of conservation: cheap protection rarely succeeds

By: Nika Levikov 

Conservation efforts in less-developed and politically unstable countries are full of risk, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. The study, which looks at how to best evaluate conservation priorities, argues that selecting priority countries based solely on economic factors may lead to failure in conservation projects and increase the likelihood of negative impacts on local people.

“The conservation community is often reluctant to discuss negative issues that relate to their work, such as corruption and poor treatment of local people by government officials, which are probably more prevalent in some countries,” explained co-author Bob Smith from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent. “Our study shows we need to investigate these issues further and develop approaches that account for and minimize their impacts.”

Notably, the study found that it’s more expensive to operate in countries with less corruption and stronger economies. In fact, the cost of conservation rose with political stability, low corruption, government strength, civil society involvement and protection of human rights.

The analysis revealed some staggering statistics. For example, the costs of conservation in the 10 most stable countries were 82 times higher than in the 10 least stable. Moreover, costs in the 10 least corrupt countries were 41 times higher than in the ten most corrupt. The results fit the basic assumption that it is cheaper to operate in developing countries.

But the authors caution that conservationists ignore the bureaucracy, political instability and corruption of developing countries at their peril. When a project operates in a country suffering from high levels of instability and corruption, international donors become heavily reliant on both national and local government for implementation. But high corruption, poor bureaucracy and little human rights protection in these areas may put the local human populations at risk and ultimately result in project failure, according to the study.

“Conservationists in low-cost countries have to spend more time and effort overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and ensuring their work does not have negative impacts on local people,” said lead author Erin McCreless with the University of California Santa Cruz, who notes that a more holistic approach to conservation priorities would be beneficial.

A troubling example is human rights abuse stemming from enforcement of conservation policy, such as heavy-handed anti-poaching efforts, which in turn may reduce local public support for conservation efforts.

In addition, the study underlined the problem of lack of focus on project outcomes. Instead of checking to see if a project is working, emphasis is often myopically placed on the initial investment with little follow-up monitoring and analysis, according to the research.

“Relative
Relative protected area management costs. Photo credit McCreless et al.

Since the bulk of the world’s biodiversity is contained in developing countries, conservationists cannot simply pack their bags and leave places most affected by corruption and economic hardship. Instead, the study suggests placing more importance on developing relationships at the local level and increasing civil society involvement in poorer countries. In addition, it stresses increasing emphasis on cooperation between organizations and academics to set new priority areas according to a range of factors, not just initial cost.

“We definitely need to reassess how conservation organizations make decisions about where to work,” Smith told mongabay.com. “At the moment we have a situation where many conservation organizations use ad hoc approaches for identifying priorities, whereas academics have developed more rigorous approaches but fail to account for relevant factors when running their analyses. One big step would be for academics to recognize that every conservation prioritization scheme has to be context and organization specific. They need to work with these organizations to identify what the prioritization scheme is for and what factors should be included.”

The study recommends discouraging individuals and organizations interested in making donations from “blindly” investing in cheap areas for conservation. Smith believes that developing new approaches will help break this simplistic method.

“It’s difficult to say when the issue began,” he said. “I think one of the main negative impacts is that conservation practitioners have ignored new approaches for setting priorities because they felt they produce naïve results.”

Understanding the true costs of conservation efforts and appropriate decision-making is clearly a challenge. However, the authors of this study assert that tackling it with collaborative efforts between practitioners and academics would be a step in the right direction.

Citations:

  • McCreless E, Visconti P, Carwardine J, Wilcox C, Smith RJ (2013) Cheap and Nasty? The Potential Perils of Using Management Costs to Identify Global Conservation Priorities. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80893. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080893

Source: http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0303-Levikov-real-cost-of-conservation.html#Sf0wrBOorTfB5Uhd.99

Montana’s Glaciated Plains: Thinking Big Across Time and Space

Posted by Sean Gerrity of American Prairie Reserve, National Geographic Fellow on November 2, 2012 

American Prairie Reserve’s mission to create a reserve of more than three million acres represents one of the largest conservation projects in the United States today. The size of the project is hard to grasp – even a small piece of the 274,000 acres that currently comprise the Reserve seems like an endless “sea of grass” to both first-time and seasoned visitors. However, after ten weeks of research on historical wildlife populations of Montana’s glaciated plains, I have become increasingly convinced that APR’s vision is necessary. If we want to understand the behavior and ecology of grassland species, we need to think big.

America’s iconic species – bison, pronghorn, elk, wolves, grizzly bears – evolved over tens of thousands of years on a wide-open continent. Over this long period of time, these species became well adapted to environmental “stochasticity,” the highly dynamic and unpredictable nature of their habitat. In fact, the prairie is one of the most dynamic ecosystems in the world.

Pronghorn race across the plains. Photo courtesy of Diane Hargreaves.

Settlers came to Montana in the early 20th century after being told that if they turned the soil they could transform the rugged landscape and cultivate a fertile Eden. A few years of unusually (and well-timed) wet conditions in the 1910′s bolstered this belief, but a severe drought in the 1920′s caused devastation for most agricultural producers. Unlike its settlers, though, the region’s wildlife had evolved several adaptations to deal with these rapid and extreme fluctuations. It turns out that the key to persistence in a highly stochastic environment is to employ a range of survival techniques.

On a wide-open continent, ungulates like elk, deer and pronghorn thrived in many different habitats and were able to chose from a toolkit of survival strategies grounded in their history and experience on the land. If conditions were optimal, herds would be inclined to stay put, but in periods of high environmental variance, they would have had to choose a new strategy. For instance, when temperatures dropped abnormally low, ungulates fled the prairie and sought thermal refuge in the Missouri River Breaks or the Rocky Mountains.

Elk in Autumn. Photo courtesy of Gib Myers/APR.

Through my research, I also discovered the debate over whether bison were historically a migratory or a nomadic species. Did they follow specific migratory patterns, or did they move in a sporadic, localized manner related to the availability of food? We’re not sure, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Regardless, much of the migratory behavior that we observe in terrestrial species today is shaped by human intervention. We have severely restricted the habitats of most wildlife species, and climate change threatens what marginal areas remain.

Recent studies predict that changes in climate, such as increases in severe weather events and changes in precipitation levels, will affect grassland ecosystems, from native plant and weed distribution to altered fire regimes. Conservation planners will have to react to these to the best of their ability within the limits of science, funds, and space.

For the ungulate species that American Prairie Reserve (APR) is trying to recover, bigger is better. A large reserve would allow wildlife to utilize more of the strategies in their survival toolbox. It may also be able to buffer the adverse effects of climate change by encompassing more habitat niches and providing more space for wildlife to disperse while still remaining within reserve boundaries. Furthermore, a large area has the capacity to support higher numbers of wildlife, which greatly reduces the risk of a population extinction event.

Late afternoon light on the Reserve. Photo courtesy of Michelle Berry.

American Prairie Reserve recently celebrated the acquisition of a 150,000-acre property that more than doubled the size of previous habitat and added 16 miles of shared border with the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Even though the goal of APR seems very ambitious at times, we must remember that wildlife persisted on a much larger landscape for thousands of years before Lewis and Clark ever walked on this land.

Thus, it is a mistake to conceptually box these species into a specific habitat-type or set of behaviors. As Lewis put it, the historical American West contained “immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer and antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” While we will never be able to recapture the full picture of historical wildlife on the frontier, American Prairie Reserve can reestablish a pretty big chunk of that natural legacy.

American Prairie Reserve intern Michelle Berry is a Master’s student in environmental studies at Stanford. She has been tasked with examining historical works of literature and other primary sources to establish wildlife population estimates in the Reserve region of northeastern Montana.Her 10-week internship was made possible by the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Source: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/02/montanas-glaciated-plains-thinking-big-across-time-and-space/

Taking a Bite Out of Biodiversity

IN THE REVIEW “STATUS AND ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST CARNIVORES” (10 January, DOI: 10.1126/science.1241484), W. J. Ripple et al. claim that meat consumption by humans is one of many threats to carnivores and biodiversity. We argue that human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity.

Livestock production accounts for up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface, making it the single largest anthropogenic land use (1). Meat and feedstock production is rapidly rising in biodiversity-rich developing countries. For example, in China, animal products currently constitute ~20% of diets, but this amount is expected to increase to ~30% or higher over the next two decades (2). For China to attain a level of carnivory similar to the United States, its projected 1.5 billion inhabitants would increase consumption of animal products by almost 30% (3). Given current trends, 1 billion additional hectares of natural habitats—an area larger than the United States—will be converted to agriculture by 2050 (4).

DSC01358

Free ranging cattle in Galicia, NW of Iberian Peninsula.

Substituting meat with soy protein could reduce total human biomass appropriation in 2050 by 94% below 2000 baseline levels (5) and greatly reduce other environmental impacts related to use of water, fertilizer, fossil fuel, and biocides. Soy protein production for global livestock markets is the second leading cause of Amazonian deforestation after pasture creation. Eliminating livestock and instead growing crops, including soy protein, only for direct human consumption could negate future agricultural land expansion, while increasing the number of calories available for human consumption by as much as 70% (6)— enough to feed an additional 4 billion people, exceeding the projected global population growth of 2 to 3 billion (6). This savings in land and calories is due to eliminating the loss of ~90% of the energy available in plants during the conversion to livestock (7).

We argue that reducing and maintaining animal products to even 10% of the global human diet would enable the future global population to be fed on just the current area of agricultural lands. Without a global decrease in per capita meat consumption by humans, the loss of natural habitats, large carnivores, and biodiversity is certain to continue.

BRIAN MACHOVINA* AND KENNETH J. FEELEY
Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, USA. *Corresponding author. E-mail: brianmachovina@gmail.com
edited by Jennifer Sills

References
1. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and
options” (FAO, Rome, 2006); http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
2. M. A. Keyzer, M. D. Merbis, I. F. P. W. Pavel, C. F. A. van Wesenbeeck, Ecol. Econ. 55, 187
(2005).
3. S. Bonhommeau et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 20617 (2013).
4. D. Tilman et al., Science 292, 281 (2001).
5. N. Pelletier, P. Tyedmers, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 18371 (2010).
6. E. Cassidy, P. C. West, J. S. Gerber, J. A. Foley, Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 8 (2013).
7. H. Charles et al., Science 327, 812 (2010).

Downloaded from http://www.sciencemag.org on February 21, 2014

Let’s just harvest invasive species. Problem solved?

Although invasive Asian carp have been successfully harvested and served on a dinner plate, harvesting invasive plants to convert into ethanol isn’t as easy. According to a recent study at the University of Illinois, harvesting invasive plants for use as biofuels may sound like a great idea, but the reality poses numerous obstacles and is too expensive to consider, at least with the current ethanol pathways.

“When the topic of potential invasion by non-native biofuel crops has been raised at conferences I’ve attended, the ecologists in the room have suggested we use biomass from existing invaders instead,” said Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist in U of I’s Energy Biosciences Institute. “They worry about the potential deployment of tens of thousands of acres of known invaders like Arundo donax for ethanol production. They’d say, ‘we have all of these invasive plants. Let’s just harvest them instead of planting new ones!’ But when I analyzed the idea from a broader perspective, it just didn’t add up.”

Quinn explored the idea of harvesting invasive plants from many angles but said that the overarching problem is the non-sustainability of the profit stream. “From a business person’s perspective, it just doesn’t function like a typical crop that is harvested and then replanted or harvested again the following year,” she said. “Here, land managers are trying to get rid of an invasive plant using an array of methods, including herbicides, so there wouldn’t necessarily be multiple years of harvest.”

Other obstacles Quinn examined are the need for specially designed harvesting equipment, the development of new conversion technologies for these unique plants, and even the problems associated with transportation.

“One of the biggest issues is the absence of appropriate biorefineries in any given area,” Quinn said. “If there isn’t one nearby, growers would have to transport the material long distances, and that’s expensive.”

Perhaps more important, Quinn discussed the issues with the high variability of the cell wall composition across different species. “Most existing or planned biorefineries can process only a single, or at best, a small handful of conventional feedstocks, and are not likely to be flexible enough to handle the variety of material brought in from invasive plant control projects,” Quinn said. “The breakdown and processing of plant tissues to ethanol requires different temperatures, enzymes, and equipment that are all highly specific. The proportion of cellulose, lignin, and other fractionation products can differ even within a single genotype if it is grown in multiple regions so the variations between completely different plant types would be an even greater hurdle.”

Quinn isn’t discounting the idea of harvesting invasive plants, however. She encourages control of invasive populations and subsequent ecological restoration but does not believe that invasive biomass can replace dedicated energy crops at present.

“One day there might be a pathway toward ethanol conversion of invasive biomass,” Quinn said. “But until we do get to that point, there may be possibilities to use invasive plants as alternative sources of energy, like combustion for electricity. Invasive biomass could drop into the existing supply of biomass being co-fired with coal in the already huge network of electrical power plants across the country. That would eliminate the technological barriers that conversion to ethanol presents.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to look at ethanol conversion processes eventually, I’m just saying that right now, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of economic sense.”

Sources:

College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

http://environmentalresearchweb.org/cws/article/yournews/55452

 

UMD Leads 1st Local-to-Global Mapping of Forest

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A University of Maryland-led, multi-organizational team has created the first high-resolution global map of forest extent, loss and gain. This free resource greatly improves the ability to understand human and naturally-induced forest changes and the local to global implications of these changes on environmental, economic and other natural and societal systems, members of the team say.

In a new study, the team of 15 university, Google and government researchers reports a global loss of 2.3 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles) of forest between 2000 and 2012 and a gain of 800,000 square kilometers (309,000 square miles) of new forest.

Source: Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al., 2013Their study, published online on November 14 in the journal Science, documents the new database, including a number of key findings on global forest change.  For example, the tropics were the only climate domain to exhibit a trend, with forest loss increasing by 2,101 square kilometers (811 square miles) per year.  Brazil’s well-documented reduction in deforestation during the last decade was more than offset by increasing forest loss in Indonesia, Malaysia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Zambia, Angola and elsewhere.

“This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant,” says University of Maryland Professor of Geographical Sciences Matthew Hansen, team leader and corresponding author on the Science paper.

“Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem, including climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales,” Hansen says.

To build this first of its kind forest mapping resource, Hansen, UMD Research Associate Professor Peter Potapov and five other UMD geographical science researchers drew on the decades-long UMD experience in the use of satellite data to measure changes in forest and other types of land cover. Landsat 7 data from 1999 through 2012 were obtained from a freely available archive at the United States Geological Survey’s center for Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS).  More than 650,000 Landsat images were processed to derive the final characterization of forest extent and change.

Source: Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al., 2013
The analysis was made possible through collaboration with colleagues from Google Earth Engine, who implemented the models developed at UMD for characterizing the Landsat data sets.  Google Earth Engine is a massively parallel technology for high-performance processing of geospatial data and houses a copy of the entire Landsat image catalog.  What would have taken a single computer 15 years to perform was completed in a matter of days using Google Earth Engine computing.

Hansen and his coauthors say their mapping tool greatly improves upon existing knowledge of global forest cover by providing fine resolution (30 meter) maps that accurately and consistently quantify annual loss or gain of forest over more than a decade. This mapping database, which will be updated annually, quantifies all forest stand-replacement disturbances, whether due to logging, fire, disease or storms. And they say it is based on repeatable definitions and measurements while previous efforts at national and global assessments of forest cover have been largely dependent on countries’ self-reported estimates based on widely varying definitions and measures of forest loss and gain.

Dynamics from local to regional to global scale are quantified.  For example, subtropical forests were found to have the highest rates of change, largely due to intensive forestry land uses.  The disturbance rate of North American subtropical forests, located in the Southeast United States, was found to be four times that of South American rainforests during the study period; more than 31 percent of U.S. southeastern forest cover was either lost or regrown.  At national scales, Paraguay, Malaysia and Cambodia were found to have the highest rates of forest loss.  Paraguay was found to have the highest ratio of forest loss to gain, indicating an intensive deforestation dynamic.

The study confirms that well-documented efforts by Brazil – which has long been responsible for a majority of the world’s tropical deforestation – to reduce its rainforest clearing have had a significant effect. Brazil showed the largest decline in annual forest loss of any country, cutting annual forest loss in half, from a high of approximately 40,000 square kilometers (15,444 square miles) in 2003-2004 to 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) in 2010-2011. Indonesia had the largest increase in forest loss, more than doubling its annual loss during the study period to nearly 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) in 2011-2012.

Hansen and colleagues say the global data sets of forest change they have created contain information that can provide a “transparent, sound and consistent basis to quantify critical environmental issues,” including the causes of the mapped changes in the amount of forest; the status of world’s remaining intact natural forests; biodiversity threats from changes in forest cover; the carbon stored or emitted as a result of gains or losses in tree cover in both managed and unmanaged forests; and the effects of efforts to halt or reduce forest loss.

For example, Hansen says, that while their study shows the efforts of Brazil’s government to slow loss of rainforest have been effective, it also shows that a 2011 Indonesian government moratorium on new logging licenses was actually followed by significant increases in deforestation in 2011 and 2012.

“Brazil used Landsat data to document its deforestation trends, then used this information in its policy formulation and implementation. They also shared these data, allowing others to assess and confirm their success,” Hansen says.  “Such data have not been generically available for other parts of the world. Now, with our global mapping of forest changes every nation has access to this kind of information, for their own country and the rest of the world.”

Global map of forest change: http://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest

Support for Landsat data analysis and characterization was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the United States Geological Survey and Google, Inc. GLAS data analysis was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Development of all methods was supported by NASA through its Land Cover and Land Use Change, Terrestrial Ecology, Applied Sciences and Measures programs (grants NNH05ZDA001N, NNH07ZDA001N, NNX12AB43G, NNX12AC78G, NNX08AP33A and NNG06GD95G) and by the United States Agency for International Development through its CARPE program.

High-resolution global maps 21st-century forest cover change, Science, Nov. 15, 2013, Vol 342 #6160, authors M. C. Hansen, P. V. Potapov, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, L. Chini, C. O. Justice and J. R. G. Townshend of the University of Maryland; R. Moore, M. Hancher and D. Thau of Google, Inc.;  S. V. Stehman of the State University of New York; S. J. Goetz of Woods Hole Research Center; T. R. Loveland of the United States Geological Survey; and A. Kommareddy, and A. Egorov of South Dakota State University.

Contacts:

Lee Tune, 301-405-4679
Laura Ours, 301-405-5722

Photos: Source: Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al., 2013

Source: http://umdrightnow.umd.edu/news/umd-leads-1st-local-global-mapping-forest