Climate Change

A Lung Scan for the Planet: A New Global Forest Change Interactive Map

December 19, 2013

The new interactive Global Forest Change Map could change the way we conserve forests. Photo: ©Scott Warren
The new interactive Global Forest Change Map could change the way we conserve forests. Photo: ©Scott Warren

Maps can tell us how to get from point A to point B. But often, they fail to inspire.

The new interactive Global Forest Change Map promises not only information but inspiration. And it could change the way we conserve forests.

Interactive maps like Google Earth and Google Maps have changed the way we perceive the world. We’ve become used to a world where a click of the mouse can bring us to the front door of your house, a camel in the middle of the Sahara, or an astronaut’s view of Greenland.

Despite these geospatial super-powers, we remain stuck in a world where, for most people, Google-style interactive maps make pretty images, but don’t yet move us to action. The cartographic possibilities are vast, but we haven’t yet figured out make interactive maps with emotional impact.

Perhaps the problem is that we’re too attached to a static definition of maps – sheets of paper that represent what is or has been there.  However, as our fleet of earth-observing satellites rapidly grows, this static paradigm is shifting to a more dynamic one.

Recently, a University of Maryland-led team of geographers released an interactive map that pioneers the new dynamic paradigm and has the potential to inspire renewed investment in forest conservation.  The Global Forest Change Map (accessible to anyone with an internet connection) pushes us to see not only what is there, but what is happening.

The map was created by using Google’s massive computing power to analyze NASA satellite images collected between 2000 and 2012. It shows all the forests we’ve lost (red) and gained (blue) during that time period, and what we still have left (green).

The overall conclusion? We are losing forests a lot faster than they can regrow themselves. The map shows a sharper, more consistent picture than we’ve ever had, and the red spots  are popping up bigger and faster, at ever increasing rates. The annual rate of forest loss (19 million hectares per year, or 50 soccer fields a minute) is a 50% increase from previous, less precise estimates.[1]

Furthermore, previous estimates appear to have been overly optimistic about the rate of forest regrowth in temperate forests.   For example, China, which has been implementing a large-scale reforestation program, reports that between 2000 and 2010, it gained 3 million hectares per year.

The Global Forest Change Map contradicts this, detecting a net loss of 400,000 hectares per year.

The beauty of the new map map is that its dynamic character allows us to analyze these complex patterns of gain and loss over time. If forests really are the lungs of our planet – absorbing and storing carbon dioxide while spitting out oxygen – then the map represents a cutting-edge, continuous image scan of our collective lungs.

Unfortunately, the scan confirms what we should already know: we need to cut back on those (metaphorical) carbon cigarettes. Red blotches are eating away at the lung capacity of our planet.

We see big chunks in South America (soy and beef), speckled tendrils in central Africa (subsistence agriculture along roads), and large red and purple mosaics in Southeast Asia (palm oil plantations).  Tropical forests in these regions are particularly critical for the future of carbon pollution mitigation, because they absorb and store double the carbon of forests in more temperate regions.

Why should we care?

In forests, nature has provided us with a gift – a powerful tool for mitigating the threat we pose to ourselves and the rest of the natural world. We’ve been able to get away with our self-destructive behavior because until now, we’ve lacked consistent, conclusive data to show the impact of our actions.

Now that the data is here, it’s our obligation to look at it, analyze it, and design strategies to reduce deforestation.

This is not as simple as getting from Point A to Point B. But it is possible. The Nature Conservancy is demonstrating that strategic incentives and smart development really can reduce our impact and revitalize our global lung capacity.

Read more about The Nature Conservancy’s work on forests and climate change.

The new interactive Global Forest Change Map
The new interactive Global Forest Change Map 

Join the Discussion


  1. Hello Peter, thank you for the link to this excellent map. I wonder if there is a better explanation / tutorial / key for this map. Just zooming in on some fire scars in AZ and NM reveals several gradations of red (=loss). Also, I am wondering about the date range for this map because I notice that some burns (such as the 2011 Horseshoe 2 fire in the Chiricahua mountains) do not show up as forest loss. Have you used the map much, and could you provide a better explanation of how it was generated using “median observations from a set of quality assessment-passed growing season observations”.

    Thanks much!

  2. Looks like greed and buiness is much more important than to leave the planet healthy for next generations. I really hate those people! :-( Brasilians seem to be in need of detroying most of it though in need of luxury for the upper 10.000