Photo by Yukitaka Iha on Unsplash.

Global Forest Watch just made it even easier to monitor forests.

Powerful, personalised forest monitoring.

Camellia Williams
May 26, 2020 · 6 min read

The latest update of Global Forest Watch offers a more powerful and personalised way to monitor forests. Working closely with our partners at World Resources Institute, we’ve upgraded the Global Forest Watch dashboards. Now you can create dashboards for any area in the world to answer specific questions on where, why, and how much forest change has happened.

The covid-19 pandemic has ignited fresh debate on how we use our forests. Our ever-encroaching expansion into pristine forests is exposing vulnerabilities we’d rarely given thought to. But with demand for beef, soy and other commodities rising, we can’t ignore the environmental impacts of our appetites. Twenty six percent of deforestation is due to demand for commodities — and Global Forest Watch helps us keep track of it.

“Supporting those monitoring and protecting the world’s forests has always been a top priority for GFW,” said Alyssa Barrett, Global Forest Watch Platform Manager, World Resources Institute. “These latest updates, developed in collaboration with Vizzuality, put forest change — in any area — into context, making it easier to find anomalies and monitor trends over time.”

Get started by creating a dashboard for your area.

Start by creating or selecting an area on the Global Forest Watch Map then click ‘Save in My GFW’ to save the area and generate a dashboard. You also have the option to subscribe to email notifications when new deforestation or fire alerts are detected within your area. For custom areas, like uploaded shapefiles, dashboards only include basic statistics at first: annual tree cover loss, hectares of tree cover, number of deforestation and fire alerts, etc.

You can create an area of any shape and size below 100 Mha, an area the size of Brazil. If you want to analyse an entire country or subnational area, you can navigate to the existing country dashboards and save an area from there.

Within 24 hours — after the analysis process completes — additional, more in-depth statistics will become available. These statistics help answer questions like: “how much tree cover loss inside my area was within indigenous sites or primary forest?” Or, “of all the deforestation alerts in my area, how many were inside plantations in the last week?

The best way to tell you what you can learn from the Global Forest Watch dashboards is to show you, so let’s take a trip to Colombia.


Since 2015, tree cover loss in Colombia has risen dramatically. A wave of commodity-driven deforestation, combined with expanding small-scale agriculture has affected many parts of the country, including national parks. Tinigua National Park is one region that’s been highlighted as a ‘Place to Watch’.

Figure 1. The pink pixels reveal tree cover loss is happening within Tinigua National Park. The pink pixels show the location of GLAD deforestation alerts between 2015 and 2020. Global Forest Watch:

From this starting point, we navigate to the area’s dashboard. The widgets within the dashboard are designed to give more context and help you understand if what’s happening within an area is normal. For example, the figure below shows us that tree cover loss within Tinigua National Park was much higher in 2018 compared to previous years.

Figure 2. Tree cover loss between 2010 and 2018 in Tinigua National Park, Colombia. Tree cover loss tripled between 2017 and 2018. Figure from Global Forest Watch:

The GLAD alert widget also provides insight on whether the number of alerts is normal, high, or unusually high compared to the same week in previous years. This widget was particularly useful in August 2019 when international attention was focused on the Amazon fires. As we can learn from the next widget, tree cover loss in Tinigua National Park has continued into 2019–2020, with an unusually high number of reported GLAD alerts in a number of weeks.

Figure 3. The GLAD alert widget provides contextual information that indicates how the number of reports differs to the same week in the previous year. Within this information, you can gauge if the number of reports is normal or requires further investigation. Global Forest Watch:

But what is driving this tree cover loss? And what are the impacts?

Impacts of tree cover loss.

Forests have an important role in the mitigation of climate change. When forests are cleared to make way for plantations, pastures, or urban areas, the loss of trees has an impact on carbon emissions and carbon storage. But forests can be sustainably managed and data supports the decisions that allow this to happen. Tools like Global Forest Watch made that data easier to use.

The Global Forest Watch dashboard provides insights on climate impacts such as emissions from biomass loss, carbon stock, above ground woody biomass, and soil organic carbon.

Figure 4. The climate section of the dashboard provides additional information on emissions from biomass loss. Dashboards for larger areas will also include widgets for carbon stock, above ground woody biomass, and soil organic carbon. Global Forest Watch:

Eighty percent of the world’s known terrestrial plant and animal species live in forests. But human activity is driving extinction at a rate that’s 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than natural levels. To preserve the diversity of life on Earth, we must protect the places they live. Primary forests have an important role in achieving this aim as they represent places where biodiversity is untouched.

Tinigua National Park is too small an area for the dashboard to calculate the area of primary and intact forest, so we will zoom out to a larger area to see these widgets in action. Knowing how much primary or intact forest remains helps guide decisions on what action is required to preserve and sustainably manage the forests and the biodiversity they contain.

Figure 5. Intact forest and primary forest in Meta, Colombia.Tinigua National Park is within this area. Global Forest Watch:

Drivers of tree cover loss.

The data on the dashboards can be complemented by data layers that are available on the map. For example, there is a layer that visualises tree cover loss by dominant driver. In Tinigua National Park, the dominant driver of tree cover loss is commodity-driven deforestation. Every data layer on Global Forest Watch can be intersected with another, providing additional insights on the why, what, and where of tree cover loss.

Figure 6. Tree cover loss by dominant driver. In Tinigua National Park, commodity-driven deforestation is the leading cause of tree cover loss.

Global Forest Watch also provides access to recent satellite imagery in the form of a Planet basemap. With these images, you can tell a more compelling story with the data. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Figure 7. Planet’s basemap imagery provides a recent birds-eye view of forests across the globe. In this location, the tree cover loss appears to be man-made. The pink colour marks the location of GLAD alerts reported between 1 January 2019 and 15 May 2020. Global Forest Watch:

Look to the past to understand the present.

To fully understand why forest loss is happening within Colombia’s National Parks, you have to look to the past. For over 50 years the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were at war. Families were displaced by civil unrest and some settled within National Parks. A peace deal was signed in 2016 but no environmental guidelines — official or unofficial — have been effectively applied since. To learn more about Colombia and the land conflicts that threaten National Parks, take a read of this article by Mongabay or this paper in Nature.

Foundation for the future.

Our team started laying the foundation for the more powerful custom dashboard feature around two years ago. Since then we’ve extended and rebuilt a suite of API services, and our partners at World Resources Institute have built an entire new data pipeline. With these changes, we can continue building and expanding the Global Forest Watch service to make it even better.

Through Global Forest Watch, park managers, concession custodians, and forest guardians have access to analysis that helps them understand when and why forests change in the areas they manage. Knowing that safety is a concern for many forest guardians, all data saved to the personal MyGFW accounts are anonymised. Even if the data are shared, no one can link it back to a specific account.

As our ability to visualise and interpret data from multiple sources increases, the ability to hide illegal deforestation decreases. Researchers, forest managers, and journalists alike can use Global Forest Watch to draw attention to the places where forest loss goes unchecked.

Explore the map today and learn more about the forest you care about most.

Camellia is Vizzuality’s Lead Writer. She writes about climate change, biodiversity, and how data and design can help us create a better future.

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