“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
Forests are often dubbed as the ‘lungs of our planet’ and this defines how important they are for us. Yet over the years, the earth’s forest cover has declined at an alarming rate. Around 18.7 million acres of forest are lost annually which is equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute. There are a number of reasons for it. While efforts have been made by conservationists, institutions and governments to combat deforestation, they have fallen short and problems still persist.
In an era when advanced technologies (such as big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence) are becoming a part of varied industries, there is increasing evidence of how these technologies can contribute towards solving globally pressing issues such as deforestation. Here’s how.
Today, approximately 31 percent of the earth’s land surface is covered by forests which is equivalent to about 4 billion hectares of land. This is much lower than the pre-industrial area of 5.9 billion hectares. The main behind the decline in the green cover over the years are logging (legal and illegal), agricultural expansion, mining, urbanization and infrastructure expansion (such as roads).
Illegal logging is one of the prime factors causing deforestation. The economic value of illegal logging around the world (including processing) is estimated between $30 and $100 billion according to the UN Environment Programme. According to WWF, illegal logging happens at a rate of approximately 80 percent in Peru while that in Myanmar is 85 percent and nearly 65 percent in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In addition to logging, mining activities have been causing huge damage: approximately 10 percent of the deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon between 2005 and 2015 was due to mining activities.
Given the interlinkages and the delicate balance which forests maintain, the fallouts of deforestation are severe.
Our forests are called the water fountains as three-quarters of the globe’s accessible freshwater comes from forested watersheds. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 40 percent of the world’s 230 major watersheds have lost more than half of their original tree cover.
The Paris Climate Agreement acknowledges the crucial role of forests and trees in maintaining the earth’s temperature. The green lungs absorb (equivalent to) 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. As the second-leading cause of climate change, deforestation accounts for nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — more than the world’s entire transport sector as per a report by the FAO.
This is grave.
“Although the pace of global deforestation has slowed since the 1990s, it remains high with about 13 million hectares (gross) lost each year. This is partially offset by reforestation, making the total annual net forest cover loss 5.6 million hectares” reads a World bank report.
Advanced technologies such as AI and big data are being leveraged in the fight against deforestation. SilviaTerra is using AI to monitor forests. SilviaTerra has a software-based approach to solve forest inventory problems by assessing forests using satellite imagery and machine learning. The algorithm, powered by AI, is enabling precision forestry at a fraction of time, fieldwork and cost of conventional methods.
SilviaTerra aims to build an up-to-date map of U.S. forests with detailed information about each tree. To do so, they are using Microsoft Azure (MSFT), high-resolution satellite imagery, and U.S. Forest Service inventory and analysis field data to train machine-learning models to measure forests.
By analyzing forest sounds, Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a non-government organization “aims to use cell phones to stop deforestation.” The Rainforest Connection (RFCx) has built acoustic monitoring systems to protect a rainforest area by responding to real-time alerts while enhancing protections in these areas. RFCx uses TensorFlow, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) machine learning framework, “to analyze all the auditory data in real-time and listen for chainsaws, logging trucks and other sounds of illegal activity to pinpoint problems in the forest.”
20tree.ai is combining AI and satellite imagery powered by NVIDIA’s (NVDA) computing power to gain information into forest composition like tree species, tree height and diameter (DBH), tree growth and productivity. The forest management system by 20tree.ai allows for the monitoring of entire forests in a fraction of the time while providing near real-time intelligence into forest and wood inventory. The system is used by locals, NGO’s, corporates and governments to get actionable insights about deforestation, drought, insect plagues, soil health, storm damage, and other forest disturbances.
Overall, advanced technologies such as AI and analytics have made the processing of data (collected through sensors, cameras, satellite images, drones, among other sources) faster, cost-effective, and accurate. Such information is a key to data-driven management for forests and its ecosystem. Overall, AI-based solutions are working on the idea of “better data, better decisions."