Last year, the Global Forest Watch tracking system starting allowing people to help monitor deforestation in far-flung parts of the world while sitting at home with their laptop. But the satellite program had a flaw: perpetrators could hide behind cloud cover. The system recently announced a new upgrade that uses radar to see right through the clouds.

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“Essentially, the satellites are sending radio waves to Earth and collecting how they come back,” said Mikaela Weisse, one of site administrators, as reported by NPR. Operated by the European Space Agency, the instrument is delivering sharper pictures than ever. “If we can detect deforestation and other changes as soon as they’re happening, then there’s the possibility to send in law enforcement or what have you, to stop it before it goes further.”

Related: You can help monitor Amazon deforestation from your couch

The software scans for changes, such as trees disappearing, and issues alerts when it detects something fishy. About once a week, the satellites re-scan each place that they are monitoring.

Global Forest Watch has been popular with citizen scientists — ordinary people without training as data or climate experts — who want to do their part to slow deforestation. The app depends on a combination of artificial and human intelligence to monitor the world’s forests.

Preliminary studies indicate that the monitoring is paying off. There’s been less forest-clearing in some places when people know their illegal actions are being observed. Eventually, evildoers figured out that clouds would cloak their deeds, so they would clear land under cover of rain, according to Weisse. This was an especially big problem in the tropics. “In Indonesia, my impression is, it’s the rainy season almost all the time,” Weisse said. “There’s almost always cloud cover.”

Global Forest Watch is available for anybody to login and see deforestation in real time. Let’s hope that big companies that have pledged not to support deforestation will use this tool to live up to their promises.

+ Global Forest Watch


Image via Gryffyn M.