Thursday, November 19, 1998 Published at 14:49 GMT
Sky spy spots climate crises
No hiding place now for those who destroy the forests
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby
Almost a fifth of the world's tropical rain forests at high risk, according to a group of international scientists who are monitoring the Earth's vegetation from space.
The scientists, members of the Global Rain Forest Mapping Project (GRFM), say the problem appears to be worst in parts of southern Asia.
The GRFM, launched in 1995, involves teams from Japan, the USA, the European Union and Brazil.
It uses high resolution satellite imaging to look at vegetation patterns and to detect any changes.
The scientists aim to map all the world's rainforests twice a year, checking on natural events like floods and fires, and also on the planting of new forests.
One of the European scientists working on the GRFM, Alan Belward, says: "What we're particularly interested in is developing patterns of tropical forest distribution.
"We're interested in how biodiversity is being affected, and we're interested because the forests themselves have a major influence on global climate".
Besides future trends, the GRFM team has already made a disturbing discovery. It has found places where the forest is disappearing at up to 15% every year.
Alan Belward describes that as "very alarming". He says: "We've found that these hot spots account for about 18% of the total area of the global tropical forest".
Nowhere is immune
"So it is a very significant problem. Every part of the world's forests is affected.
"But perhaps the highest risk area is continental south east Asia, and the least affected area central Africa".
There have been earlier maps of global vegetation. But Alan Belward says they could not match what the GRFM is doing.
"They've come from all sorts of different sources", he says, "with different accuracy levels, and they've been collected over many years".
"With our satellite observations from space, we can get the whole situation in just a few weeks from a single standard data source".
And a further advance is the ability of some of GRFM's satellites to see what is on the ground even when there is thick cloud overhead.