Ecometrica is using its environmental software to help protect forests around the globe

Seeing the wood for the trees

BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe finds out how Edinburgh-based technology company Ecometrica is using its environmental software to help protect forests around the globe.

Some of the statistics surrounding the world’s forests are simply staggering: scientists estimate that there are around three trillion trees on the planet, more than 400 times higher than the number of people. Together, those trees cover a massive four billion hectares, roughly the size of four billion rugby pitches or the equivalent of about 30% of the Earth’s landmass. Those forests play a key role in protecting the planet against the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 20% if humans avoided chopping down trees in the tropical rainforests and could fall by more than 30% if trees were replanted in areas of forests that have already been felled.

Tropical forests alone hold more than 210 gigatons – or 210 million tonnes – of carbon, around seven times as much as is being emitted by humans each year, illustrating the crucial role trees fulfil in the atmosphere. As any high school biologist will explain, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and give out the oxygen that humans need to breathe. Trees don’t just play a role in protecting the climate though. They also provide homes for 80% of the world’s terrestrial wildlife, with each square kilometre of tropical forest potentially holding more than 1,000 species. That’s not to mention the humans who rely on forests either. Some 1.6 billion people are dependent on forests to earn their living, while 300 million have carved out their homes among the trees.

Yet despite their importance for humans, animals and the atmosphere, Earth’s forests are under threat from all angles. Between 46 and 58 million square miles of forest are destroyed each year. The Amazonian rainforest, the largest on the planet, has lost more than 17% of its cover in the past 50 years, while the island of Sumatra in Indonesia has been stripped of 85% of its forests. Borneo has lost a similar amount of cover. From palm oil plantations in South-East Asia to cattle ranching in South America, the world’s forests are coming under pressure like never before. Logging, quarrying and other industrial activities are adding to the devastation.

The first step towards saving the world’s woods is to understand which areas are currently covered by trees, how much forest cover is being lost and how the remaining plants are performing. Once scientists measure the extent of the problem, governments and environmentalists can start working on solutions.

Step forward Ecometrica, a sustainability software company based in Edinburgh. The firm has developed a technology platform that allows users to see and analyse masses of data from the satellites that orbit the Earth. The firm has been awarded a contract worth £14.2m by the International Partnership Programme (IPP) run by the UK Space Agency.

Under the deal, Ecometrica will lead a consortium of international experts to monitor forests in six countries. The Forests 2020 project is designed to help countries to improve the management and protection of around 300 million hectares of tropical forests – around 12 times the size of the UK. The contract is the largest to be awarded under the UK Space Agency’s £150m IPP. “This will help to establish Ecometrica as a leading international provider of digital infrastructure for earth observation (EO) services,” explains executive chairman Richard Tipper, who co-founded the company in 2008. Tipper was the lead author of two reports for the IPCC, the organisation that shared the 2007 Noble Peace Prize with former United States vice president Al Gore “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.

Amazon Basin, image from ESATipper says: “Working with several organisations in each of the six countries, including research institutions, non-governmental organisation (NGOs) and conservationists on the ground, this project will help improve the capacity to implement effective forest and ecosystem monitoring services.

“It is estimated that improved monitoring systems, which enable a more targeted approach, could help prevent the loss of four to six million hectares of forest over the next decade – that’s an area more than half the size of Scotland, or two to three times the size of Wales.

“We all know how important tropical rainforests are to the survival of the global ecosystem, but most people are only just waking up to the fact that we need to use technology to make sure conservation efforts are effective. Our EO platform will ensure threats such as fires and illegal logging are detected sooner, and make the response on the ground faster and more cost effective.”

Launched in 2016, the IPP brings together British space knowledge, expertise and capability to “provide a sustainable, economic or societal benefit to undeveloped nations and developing economies”. Grants were available for both academic and industrial partners. As part of the project, Ecometrica is bringing together experts from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Leicester, and fellow Edinburgh-based company Carbomap, a specialist in forest mapping using light detection and ranging (Lidar). Lidar is similar to radar but instead of using radio waves it uses laser light to measure the distance to an object.

Carbomap was spun-out from the University of Edinburgh in 2013. Its chief executive is Professor Iain Woodhouse, who co-founded Ecometrica with Tipper and chief executive Gary Davis and who served as a non-executive director between 2008 and 2012. The Forest 2020 project will involve setting up EO laboratories in Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico to assess threats to rainforests and help conservationists to direct their resources in the right directions. The programme is expected to be completed in 2020.

Ecometrica already has an enviable track-record of working to protect forests. In 2015 and 2016, the company led a project as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Space Programme (IPSP). The IPSP project created a network of virtual EO labs in various regions within Brazil and Mexico. Ecometrica’s partners were the El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Ecosur), a multi-disciplinary research centre in South-Eastern Mexico, and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Ecosur and INPE have used Ecometrica’s system across a broad range of applications. In Mexico, Ecosur has studied mangrove swamps on the Chiapas coast and forest monitoring in Campeche, Chiapas and Marques de Comillas. INPE’s ‘Inland’ project displays data about the various ecosystems across Amazonia, including the distribution of various types of vegetation, while its emissions model looks at the discharge of greenhouse gases around Brazil.

“Forests 2020 builds on our expertise of applying satellite data to situations on the ground, and will allow us to tackle technological challenges relating to the detection of changes to forests, the measurement of risk, and the digital infrastructure needed to use the data in the field,” says Tipper.

Ecometrica’s system is based on cloud computing, allowing satellite data to be accessed and analysed from any computer connected to the internet. This approach means that data isn’t locked away on individual desktop computers, which would make it harder to access. Using a cloud-based system also means the data can be updated at the click of a mouse, removing any uncertainties over the accuracy or timeliness of information. Ecometrica’s technology platform is also packed with analysis tools that mean non-experts can begin to examine and understand the data, pulling off reports without requiring knowledge of the inner workings of a geographical information system (GIS).

“Our model for an EO lab is one that can be established within an existing research, business or administrative organisation,” Tipper explains. “The core components are cloud-based data and software, so there is minimal requirement for physical infrastructure.

Egmont Park“Each EO lab will serve specific themes relevant to its region. For example, in the case of Southern Mexico, there are specific forest-agriculture interactions that are of importance for forest protection, biodiversity and social development.”
Tipper is no stranger to Mexico. Having studied agricultural science at the University of Edinburgh, he worked as an advisor to farmers’ organisations in the country and later completed his doctoral research on the economics of contemporary Mayan farmers.

“There are many local, national and international stakeholders who would like access to EO-derived information,” he adds. “A regional lab should support co-ordination and collaboration between these stakeholders to move away from fragmented, compartmentalised mapping and monitoring to build information products that aim for continuity, wall-to-wall coverage and
consistent quality.

“The state-of-the-art cloud-based system means huge amounts of data can be shared, allowing applications to be built combining satellite images with studies, models and information gathered on the ground. When you combine data with other models it starts to become ever more interesting and reliable, and by working with a variety of stakeholders we have been able to create unprecedented levels of usable information, initially on the forests of Brazil and Mexico and we’ll eventually add many other aspects of the environment.”