Last year, a ticking time bomb went off in Indonesia, resulting in what many consider one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in human history. Massive fires burnt through an astounding two million hectares of tropical forests and peatlands in Indonesia, destroying prime habitat for orangutan, elephant and countless other animals. Moreover, the fires made the country one of the world’s top emitters of carbon, higher than Germany last year, according to data from the World Resources Institute (WRI).

NASA's Terra satellite shows thick smoke over the island of Borneo on 5 October 2006. Fires occur annually in the dry season (August–October), caused mainly by land-clearing and other agricultural fires. (Photo Credit: NASA / Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team)

NASA’s Terra satellite shows thick smoke over the island of Borneo on 5 October 2006. Fires occur annually in the dry season (August–October), caused mainly by land-clearing and other agricultural fires. (Photo Credit: NASA / Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team)

It was more than forests that suffered. The fires created a haze crisis throughout Southeast Asia, impacting the health of millions.

“For three months, Singapore, Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the Philippines were all affected,” said Teguh Surya with Greenpeace Indonesia. “We must realize how important Indonesia’s role in combating emissions from land-use change…if Indonesia’s forests collapse, it means the [global] climate situation will get much, much worse.”

The stakes are clear. If we are to solve climate change, then we need to find a solution to deforestation and fires – and fast.

The silver lining is this: If this is a human-caused problem, then there can be a human-created solution, one that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, as more and more scientists are saying is necessary to stop catastrophic climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture made up about 25 percent of global emissions, with deforestation playing the largest role.

So how can we do it? Many believe the answer may come from the sky, in the increasing capabilities of satellite technology. In fact, a whole host of companies and organizations are aiming to revolutionize remote monitoring of landscapes in what they hope is a successful effort to reduce deforestation, fires and their emissions.

Deforestation up close. This land was cleared for an oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra. (Photo Credit: H Dragon / Flickr)

“With the commercialization of satellites, we now have different lenses we can use to track deforestation,” said Jeff Stein, Vice President of Business Development at Orbital Insight, which aims to analyze diverse satellite data for information about fires and deforestation. “There’s so much more that we can do with satellite imagery than just manually staring at the pixels.”

How Can Satellites Help?

Satellites can help us better understand the chief drivers of the fires: Years of human-driven, illegal deforestation and the rapid expansion of palm and acacia mono-culture plantations. Both palm (grown for oil) and acacia (the chief source of paper pulp) require dry land to grow, so plantation owners drain the naturally wet peatland, leaving the land in an unnaturally dry state. Add El Nino, which brings dry conditions to much of Indonesia, and you have a recipe for disaster. This was the ticking time bomb.

But even that is not the real problem. Fire is a tool, and though the result is an environmental disaster, it is also a product of social conditions, says Herry Purmono, a scientist of forest governance at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, and a Professor at Bogor Agricultural University. “Fire is mostly by caused by people who transform land from forest to oil palm. The underlying causes are poverty, conflict between among different people on the ground, and large companies.”

Many scientists agree that fires are probably the worst way to clear forest for plantations. Even mechanical clearing – while still destructive to forests – would be preferable, as it would at least reduce greenhouse gas emissions and haze. But fire has its advantages: It’s cheap and it provides cover for land grabs. 

Pristine forest is difficult to legally convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forest and peat? Welcome, palm and acacia. Earlier this year, Greenpeace found brand new plantings on freshly burned land on the island of Borneo, showing how fast this process occurs.

Purmono and other scientists spend considerable time on the ground in the fire region and are, increasingly, using satellite data to determine what types of land – controlled by whom or what – are burning. This helps them challenge the de-facto response, finger pointing at smallholder farmers using slash and burn agriculture.

“In fact, hot-spots were everywhere – logging concessions, wood plantations, industrial plantations, oil palm, as well as in community land, and even in protected areas,” said Purmono. Better data could allow us to pinpoint this down to specific companies or local actors, who could then be held responsible. Or this information could help create policies to prevent fires in the future.

The Need for Palm Oil Keeps the Cycle Going

The supply chains that connect palm oil and paper pulp to global markets extend around the world. Indonesia consumes little of these two commodities itself, which means the vast majority goes overseas, including to the United States, where palm oil is one of the most consumed oils. You’ll find it in many processed foods, or bath/body products, often listed as “vegetable oil” or “non-hydrogenated oil.” This oil could be from a plantation planted illegally in Indonesia, responsible for the fires that devastated the landscape last year.

Planet Expert Heather Rally in front of popular cookie products that use palm oil in their ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Heather Rally)

Planet Expert Heather Rally in front of popular cookie products that use palm oil in their ingredients. (Photo courtesy of Heather Rally)

Descartes Labs, a project spun of from Los Alamos National Laboratory, wants to help solve this problem by not just comparing pixels or finding hotspots, but by using machine learning to help analyze and understand small-scale shifts over time. They aim to take the immense data satellites are providing and turn it into useful information that informs us about land-use changes taking place all around the world.

“As a company, we are focused on applying artificial intelligent to satellites imagery at a planetary scale,” said Descartes Labs CEO Mark Johnson. “Software can help us analyze things at scale.”

Palm oil is derived from palm nuts, the fruit of oil palm trees.

Palm oil is derived from palm nuts, the fruit of oil palm trees. (Photo via Creative Commons)

For palm oil, this could mean better system-wide knowledge. “One thing is understanding better how much we’ve cut out of the rainforest for oil palm,” said Johnson, “But we also need to understand the physical assets – all these processing plants, their construction – this will give us a lot better idea of the entire supply chain.”

According to Stein, this ability will only improve over time. “Ultimately, in 10 years, we’ll have imagery of the entire Earth all of the time, which opens up the possibility to track supply chains.” Stein added that he envisions being able to follow individual trucks carrying palm oil or timber to ports, and then follow the palm oil as it traverses through global supply chains.

Satellites’ ability to monitor the Earth better and faster are expected to grow at a near exponential clip in coming years. This means we will soon have better information about deforestation and land-use changes globally.

In fact, some of these new satellites are already making an impact. El Nino is not over, and already hotspots are appearing across Indonesia as the country gears up for another dry season. Yet, in just the past six months, we already have new tools to monitor what’s happening, most notably, WRI’s weekly alerts system GLAD, which tracks deforestation automatically, and an Indonesia-language fire tracking site that could allow for more dissemination of information locally. With the coming launch of Planet Labs satellite constellation, and faster, better and cheaper processing of imagery, expect the role of satellites in monitoring deforestation and fires to only get better. For Indonesia’s dwindling natural heritage, it can’t come fast enough.

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