Happy International Forests Day!

21 March 2023
EU Forests are taking on spectacular colours in autumn. Image captured by Copernicus Sentinel-2
EU Forests are taking on spectacular colours in autumn. Image captured by Copernicus Sentinel-2

Forests offer countless benefits – from purifying water to cleaning the air and capturing carbon to fight climate change. They also provide food, life-saving medicines and raw materials for building homes. And who hasn’t enjoyed going for a hike in the woods?  

To celebrate the many benefits of healthy forests, the United Nations has designated today, 21 March, as the International Day of Forests. But more than celebrating, today is also a chance to raise awareness about the importance of protecting our forests. 

“Conserving and sustainably using forests is one of the best ways of protecting our planet and our own well-being,” says EUSPA Executive Director Rodrigo da Costa. “It’s up to us to safeguard these precious natural resources – and EU Space and our Agency can help.”

From promoting reforestation to preventing deforestation, degradation and fires, the EU Space Programme is an essential tool for sustainable forest management. Here’s six ways that Copernicus, EGNOS and Galileo are all working to ensure that everyone can benefit from healthy forests. 

1. Keeping an eye on carbon sinks

Trees are important carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. According to the Forest Information System for Europe (FISE), as of 2020, Europe’s forests were storing 92.1 gigatonnes of carbon. Unfortunately, when forests disappear or become degraded, all this stored carbon gets emitted back into the atmosphere. 

This highlights the critical need to monitor the carbon stocks of forested regions – monitoring that can be done via Earth Observation. For example, using the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, climate scientists can map and monitor forest biomass and estimate its potential to serve as a carbon sink. 

2. Planting 3 billion trees

A key component of the EU Forest Strategy, which aims to improve the quantity and quality of Europe’s forests while also strengthening their protection, restoration and resilience, is to plant 3 billion new trees by 2030. According to the 2022 EUSPA EO and GNSS Market Report, Earth Observation will play a big part in achieving this goal. 

With the climate and weather data provided by Copernicus, authorities can better understand how different tree species will adapt to droughts, heatwaves and other climate-induced extreme weather events. EO can also provide decision makers with the data on soil composition they need to ensure these new trees are planted in the right conditions. 

3. Stopping deforestation 

The UN estimates that every year the world loses nearly 4.7 million hectares of forested area. Much of this loss is due to deforestation, the process of converting forested land into other uses. 

When it comes to detecting, mapping and monitoring this deforestation, nothing beats Earth Observation. For example, EO-based tools for forest monitoring are using Copernicus data, along with the optical and radar instruments onboard Sentinel satellites, to provide global information with a high acquisition frequency to forestry stakeholders completely free of charge.  

4. Preventing illegal logging

Copernicus can even help prevent illegal logging – a major cause of deforestation. By flagging potential development and road construction happening within forests, EO data helps authorities look for illegal activity and predict where such activity is most likely to occur. 

Authorities also use GNSS to track timbre movements, which can help increase the transparency and traceability of the timber supply chain, reducing the likelihood that illegal exportation goes unnoticed. 

5. Sustainable forests management 

Much of Europe’s forests are under the management of the forest industry and are used to source raw material to produce paper and wood products. If these forests aren’t sustainably managed, we could run out of raw material – which is why the forestry industry is keen on using EU Space. 

Forest managers and owners use remote sensing technologies to gather data over the large, often remote swaths of land that managed forests cover. They then use this data to track relevant inventory and, based on this, optimise harvesting and planting plans. 

The forestry industry also relies on GNSS for such precision operations as the guidance of machinery and the variable rate application of fertilisers and irrigation – all of which allow the timber industry to implement best practices in sustainable forest management. 

Thanks to its more robust signals, Galileo performs better under dense tree canopies, enabling machine guidance in forest environments. Moreover, Galileo is used to guide drones, which are increasingly being utilised in forest management operations.

6. Fighting forests fires

With climate change causing extreme draughts, heatwaves and winds, forest fires are becoming an all-too frequent occurrence. Luckily, fire departments and decision makers can rely on Earth Observation to help mitigate the risk of fires before they happen and to battle them when they do. That’s because EO has the advantage of being able to provide wide geographic coverage and the ability to ‘see’ through clouds and smoke and rapidly capture images. 

Firefighting teams are also replacing their ground-based systems and use of rotorcraft with drones equipped with a range of sensors for capturing data. Such systems are particularly beneficial in rural and remote areas, where EO-equipped drones guided by the precise positioning offered by GNSS can provide wildfire fighters with another layer of information – and protection. 

7. Cassini Hackathon and EUSPA´s contribution

EUSPA is leading the Cassini hackathons and also there, forestry is a big topic! Earth observation to protect forests from bark beetle infestation was the idea of YOLANDA. Blaz & Matic were old friends, they met Primoz and Lucija at the Cassini Hackathon #4. They were all already familiar with the problem of bark beetle infestation, but only during the hackathon, they crafted a realistic plan for a software product that allows forest insurers/owners to have actionable insights from satellite imagery. The ultimate outcome is the preservation of our natural resources and an increase in CO2 sequestration.

4th CASSINI Hackathon winners YOLANDA (Slovenia)

Endless potential 

As we celebrate International Forests Day, it’s important to remember that, while our forests are in trouble, there is still plenty we can do to help. 

“From carbon monitoring to sustainable logging, Copernicus, Galileo and EGNOS are indispensable tools for protecting – even restoring – our forests,” concludes da Costa. “When these tools are paired with emerging technologies like drones, robots and artificial intelligence, the potential for preserving healthy forests for future generations is endless. The protection of our forests is critical not only for the environment but also for the success of the EU Green Deal and our collective efforts to combat climate change.”

To learn more about this potential, be sure to check out the dedicated chapter in the latest edition of our EO and GNSS Market Report and get in touch with EUSPA at market@euspa.europa.eu

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Updated: Mar 22, 2023