Conservation on the radar

When we hear the word radar, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a circular screen showing blips that detect the presence of aircrafts or ships. We also think of radar instruments that enable us to forecast the weather, or the speed guns that police use to catch speeding motorists.

But the kind of radar I’m interested in, particularly in my work for Fauna & Flora International’s Philippines Programme, involves Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)—a technology which is mainly useful for observing and monitoring changes on the Earth’s surface.

SAR has been widely used for Earth observation. One of its main advantages over optical satellite images (such as those Earth images you normally see in Google Earth) is that it can “see through” clouds, and produce completely cloud-free images of the Earth’s surface.

This kind of radar has already been put to good use in conservation. The Global Rainforest Mapping Project in 1995, for example, generated satellite images that have been used to monitor forests across the planet’s tropical regions, while the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in 2000 successfully produced the first high-resolution topographic map of the Earth’s land surface at a near-global scale.

It has also been proven to be effective for mapping and monitoring changes in the world’s forests and can even be used to measure forest biomass up to a certain extent. This makes SAR very useful for FFI’s global initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).

In simple terms, REDD+ aims to create a market for carbon stored in forests, thereby providing a financial incentive for communities and countries to conserve their forests rather than cut them down (with obvious benefits for biodiversity).

In order for this to work however, financial investors will want to see evidence of forest conservation, and be sure that deforestation does not simply shift to other areas.

This is where SAR can come in handy.

Knowledge exchange

In the Philippines, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is currently working in close partnership with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH and the Department of Geodetic Engineering at the University of the Philippines to explore the use of remote sensing to support the development of the Philippines’ national REDD+ monitoring, reporting, and verification system.

Through this partnership, we have been able to collaborate with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and ALOS Kyoto & Carbon (K&C) Initiative (an international remote sensing science community) to gain access to Japan’s ALOS/PALSAR radar imageries.

This not only grants us access to ALOS/PALSAR data, but also gives us the chance to learn from the world’s foremost radar remote sensing scientists on how SAR can be used to understand historical forest changes and assess forest carbon stock within our REDD+ pilot areas.

In return, we will be supporting JAXA’s global forest mapping effort by sharing our field data to validate the forest/non-forest maps generated from the ALOS/PALSAR images.

From theory to practice: planning the next steps

Recognising the potential of SAR technology for developing a REDD+ monitoring system, FFI together with its partners also ran a successful three-day workshop to train local institutions on the use of SAR for forest management and REDD+ monitoring.

It was really exciting to see a room full of people eager to learn more, with almost 35 participants from various organisations across the country, including government bureaus, NGOs, universities, research institutions, and energy corporations.

SAR training group photo (credit: Erika Valdueza)

Participants at the SAR training workshop (photo credit: Erika Valdueza).

Participants heard case studies on some of the early applications of SAR data for forest management, and the workshop also provided an ideal opportunity to discuss the gaps, challenges, and ways forward within the country’s forestry sector.

It was a fantastic chance as well for different organisations to develop collaborative research ideas on SAR applications. It is my hope that the next time this group convenes we will be sharing results, experiences, and lessons from each of our efforts.

Our next activity: this summer (referring to the hot and humid summer in the Philippines), we will be getting our hands dirty by conducting the first wave of forest carbon inventories and biodiversity assessments at two sites.

The initial field data that we gather from the forest plots will be used together with the ALOS/PALSAR radar data to generate preliminary baseline results in support of our REDD+ projects.

Main photo: 2008 ALOS/PALSAR mosaic image showing Luzon Island in the Philippines (credit: JAXA/METI, Google).