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New Website Tracks Deforestation in Near Real-Time

Forests around the world are disappearing at an astonishing rate. But now, these trees won't fall without a sound.

A new map and website called Global Forest Watch provides the first near-real-time look at the planet's forests, using a combination of satellite data and user-generated reports. The website's developers hope that Global Forest Watch will help local governments and companies combat deforestation and save protected areas.

"More than half a billion people depend on [forests] for their jobs, their food, their clean water," said Andrew Steer, the CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI), which launched the website today (Feb. 20). "More than half of all terrestrial biodiversity lives in forests."

But humans are failing to preserve these crucial ecosystems, Steer told reporters before the launch. The equivalent of 50 soccer fields each minute have fallen every day of the past 13 years. [See Images of the New Deforestation Map]

Global Forest Watch, launched Feb. 20, 2014, provides a near real-time update of forest loss around the globe. [Read more about the Global Forest Watch website] World Resources Institute

The new Global Forest Watch will update monthly at a medium resolution with data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra and Aqua satellites. The resolution of these monthly updates is somewhat coarse, but every year, the map updates with much finer-grained imagery from NASA's Landsat program. Each pixel of Landsat data is roughly equivalent to a baseball infield, said Nigel Sizer, the director of the WRI Global Forest Initiative. That's 100 times finer than the monthly updates, according to Sizer.

"What is new here is that we are taking an enormous amount of very complex and very confusing information and making it available to everyone, everywhere," Sizer said. [Video: Monitoring Forests in Near Real-Time]

Marahoue National Park in the Ivory Coast has lost more than 90 percent of its forest cover. On the Global Forest Watch Map, the protected area is shown in blue, overlapping with the pink deforestation. World Resources Institute

Mapping deforestationThe fine-grained map comes from the work of Matt Hansen, a geographer at the University of Maryland, and his colleagues, who published the first Landsat map of global deforestation last year. The WRI and about 40 other partners, including Google, then got on board to turn Hansen's map into something interactive and public.

At globalforestwatch.org, users can scroll across the globe and zoom in on areas of loss (and, more rarely, gain). Users of Google Maps will find the format very familiar, given that the company was a major partner in creating the website.

"If you can find a friend's address, you can easily use this map," Sizer said.

The map reveals sobering data, including supposedly protected areas that are nearly destroyed. Marahoué National Park in Côte d'Ivoire in Africa shows up completely pink on the map view — it has lost more than 90 percent of its trees despite its national park status.

- Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience

This is a version of a report that appeared on Live Science. Read the full report.

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