Keeping tabs on forests

New software from the U helps global climate change research

By Deane Morrison

In the wake of the recent U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, the United States and five other nations have pledged $3.5 billion to preserve forests.

This creates the need for better technology to track changes in the world's forest ecosystems over time.  And University of Minnesota computer scientist Vipin Kumar, along with his research team, is developing it.

Forest losses and degradation account for as much as 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to fossil fuel emissions. When forests are destroyed or degraded, not only can trees no longer remove and store carbon dioxide from the air, but the burning or rotting of trees releases any carbon they had previously stored.

One of TIME's Top 50

The Planetary Skin platform was recently named one of TIME magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2009. Through the partnership between the University and the Planetary Skin Institute, the institute will provide $3.2 million to the University over three years. The partnership was announced at the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Yet the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from forest degradation have been some of the hardest elements of the global carbon cycle to pin down.

Tracking the planet's trees

Kumar's software allows researchers to track the growth and degradation of forests around the world and how they have changed due to fires, logging, droughts, floods, farming, and other activities. Policymakers can then use the data to allocate resources where they will do the most good.

"Our focus is on creating a planetary-scale information system," says Kumar, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. "We are developing algorithms that take NASA satellite data and use it to identify and create a history of changes in the world's ecosystems."

These new data mining methods have dramatically advanced the ability to monitor global land cover using satellite data. Kumar's system will help climate researchers study ecosystem disturbances and their relationship to global climate variability and human activity.

A new global network

The University recently entered a partnership with the Planetary Skin Institute, which began as a collaboration between NASA and Cisco Systems Inc. to develop a global "nervous system" called Planetary Skin. It will integrate data from sensors monitoring the air, sea, and land in a form that policymakers can use. The Kumar team's software will be incorporated into the first prototype of the Planetary Skin, to be released this year.

The prototype will begin by tracking where and how much carbon is held in rain forests, but it is expected to expand to cover agriculture and degraded lands. Such data will be key in dealing with energy use, water scarcity, and food security, among other issues.

Kumar says he hopes to make his system publicly available.