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Tracking the world’s forests from space

29 Aug 2023

As human activities continue to threaten the planet’s forests, data delivered by satellites are boosting global efforts to conserve these crucial natural resources.

Forests are a vital element of the Earth system, hosting thriving ecosystems, regulating the climate, and helping to maintain the water cycle.

Earth observation data disseminated by ESA are supporting efforts to reduce deforestation by increasing transparency and accountability, as well as promoting conservation by guiding sustainable land use strategies. You can browse and access data for forest monitoring online.

The agency is also developing an upcoming mission named Biomass that is set to transform how forests are monitored from space.

Shaping understanding of the planet’s forests

ERS-2 monitors changes in forest cover in Brazil
ERS-2 monitors changes in forest cover in Brazil

ESA has been tracking the state of the world’s forests for decades, thanks to a succession of Earth observing missions carrying a variety of instrumentation.

These include several Heritage Missions, such as ESA’s European Remote Sensing satellite (ERS) programme – which was active between 1991 and 2011 – and the agency’s Envisat satellite, which launched in 2002 and delivered 10 years of data.

Data from instruments carried by ERS are used to map forest cover, detect deforestation, help estimate biomass and carbon storage – and even track the impact of forest fires.

Envisat hosted a suite of instruments, with its Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) and its Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) sensor enabling detailed analyses of different aspects of forest dynamics.

Envisat tracks deforestation in Brazil
Envisat tracks deforestation in Brazil

Using these sensors, Envisat and ERS delivered valuable information on deforestation in the Amazon basin in the 1990s and 2000s.

These data – as well as observations covering other regions – are used in combination with measurements from more recent missions, enabling continuous analyses that are improving long-term understanding of how forests are changing, thus spurring action to protect them.

Data from ESA’s Heritage Missions are maintained, made accessible, and continuously improved through ESA’s Heritage Space programme.

Commercial data for forest monitoring

Deforestation in Brazil
Deforestation in Brazil

Scientist’s understanding of the health of the world’s forests is being further improved through current institutional and commercial remote sensing activities.

Through its Third Party Missions (TPM) programme, ESA disseminates high-quality remote sensing data collected by a number of international partner missions to a range of users for free, to support research and development activities.

TPMs that deliver data for forest monitoring include the Pléiades Neo constellation, which is manufactured, owned and operated by Airbus Defence and Space.

Pléiades Neo is a very high-resolution optical system of two identical satellites phased at 180° from each other, providing continuity for the Pléiades mission, with enhanced accuracy, reactivity and frequency.

The constellation supports a number of remote sensing applications, from urban planning to forestry and environmental management.

Other TPM’s to deliver data on the planet’s forests include the COSMO-SkyMed series, the WorldView constellation, and GEOSAT.

Future innovation

As governments step up their plans to conserve the world’s forests, ESA’s Biomass mission – expected to launch in the coming years – is set to support these efforts.

ESA’s upcoming Biomass mission
ESA’s upcoming Biomass mission

Part of the agency’s Earth Explorer programme, Biomass will deliver new information about the global distribution of forest biomass.

The mission will advance understanding of the world’s forests and how they are changing, reduce uncertainties in calculations of carbon stocks and fluxes on land, provide new insight into the role forests play in the carbon cycle, and support action to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

Biomass is the first satellite to carry a P-band SAR sensor and this innovation will enable the mission to address the huge technical challenge of mapping forest biomass from space.

The sensor will peer through clouds, which typically shroud tropical forests, and penetrate the canopy layer, allowing the biomass of trees to be estimated.