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Reduce and Reverse Tropical Forest Loss With NICFI

NICFI Satellite Data Program – Finding Values That Matter

Tropical forests play a critical role in reducing the amount of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this, we have not been able to sufficiently measure and understand one of the biggest threats to our climate – deforestation. Featured on this show is Tara O’Shea, the Senior Director of Forest and Land Use at Planet. Tara shares how Planet and other partners have come together under NICFI’s (Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative) satellite data project to make high resolution satellite data available for tropical forest monitoring systems and researchers across the world.

Deforestation Crisis

Since our earliest years, we have been taught that trees are important, and why. Trees act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and giving back oxygen, in addition to securing soil, and acting as flooding mitigators, amongst countless other benefits. Yet for many people, the value of forests remains solely the economic incentive of converting forest resources into products. As a result, the rate of deforestation happening globally is unsustainable. We are quickly turning one of the largest terrestrial carbon sinks into one of the largest sources of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Why Do We Need High Resolution Imagery?

A higher resolution image can reveal what would not be visible in lower resolution imagery. Lying at the root of managing the climate and sustainability crises, is the inability to measure the things that matter. Capturing information and the scale of change at the pace at which it is happening on the ground is critical for better management of forest areas. The forestry sector has struggled to manage some aspects that matter because they could not be measured using low resolution imagery. As the saying goes, “you can’t fix what you can’t see.” Finding a way to value and allocate capital on the services offered by forests will help to reduce the value placed on economic activities that destroy forests.

What Is NICFI?

Administered by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, NICFI (Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative) is an initiative to save the world’s tropical forests and improve the livelihoods of its inhabitants. Since September 2020, the NICFI satellite data program has helped to make high resolution satellite imagery available to tropical forest monitoring systems around the world. The data is distributed under a license by the Norwegian government, giving free access to NGOs, governments, and any other users that are doing some work around deforestation in the tropics. The program’s lifespan is 3 years, and is set to run through September 2023.

NICFI Satellite Data

Planet is one of the key partners that captures high resolution satellite imagery that is then made available through the NICFI satellite data program. Every day, Planet runs satellite missions to image the full Earth using hundreds of small satellites. The imagery is multispectral and has a spatial resolution of less than five meters. Four bands are captured in the imagery; the Visual (Red, Blue, Green) bands and the Near Infrared (NIR), which is critical in vegetation monitoring. From the daily imagery captured over an entire month, the best images are selected and stitched together into a single analysis-ready data layer. Choosing from the daily scans to provide a monthly dataset makes it possible to pull cloud free pixels, even in very cloudy places, which is significant given that the tropics are generally a very cloudy region.

Data Access Levels

In order to reach a wide variety of users in the tropical forest monitoring community, the data is provided at different access levels, each offering a different product. The levels are designed to serve different sectors of users with varying degrees of technical capacity and need. The data access levels are categorized as follows:

Level 0:

Available at this level is a visual mosaic product which has been optimized for display and visual interpretation. It is a three-band (RGB) optical product, particularly useful for journalists and locals in indigenous communities.

Level 1:

Level 1 data is an analysis ready mosaic product with all four bands (Visible RGB and NIR). Optimized for analysis, the product is fully downloadable and can be accessed through Planet APIs in whichever operational environment a user is working in. Level 1 users also have access to a data archive that dates back to December 2015.

Level 2

Users at this level have access to the scenes data that went into the mosaic products of the lower levels. Additionally, they also have access to archived data that dates back to 2002. Level 2 membership is only for a selected number of users named by the Norwegian ministry.

Who Is Allowed to Access NICFI Data?

The goal of the NICFI satellite data project is to provide a common, improved high resolution dataset that can inform stakeholders’ work flows instead of everyone making decisions using different information. As such, anyone can access the data under a non-commercial license. The data usage must align with NICFI purposes to reduce and reverse tropical forest loss, combat climate change, conserve biodiversity, and facilitate sustainable development.

Where Can Users Access NICFI Data?

Efforts have been made to “meet the users where they are” by making data available in existing operational and decision making environments that are already being used. Adding to Planet’s data platform, the data can also be accessed through a number of its partner platforms. For instance, the level zero visual data can be freely accessed through Sentinel Hub, Global Forest Watch, and SEPAL, among others. The analysis ready data is available to users in Google Earth Engine, and those working in ArcGIS, QGIS, or other GIS environments can use Planet’s API and existing integrations to pull the data into their working environment.

How Is NICFI Data Currently Being Used?

Several governments across the tropics are using the NICFI data to honor their Paris Agreement on Climate Change commitments. Additionally, the data is also useful in domestic policy, planning, and enforcement.

In the private sector, several entities are using the data to gain insights into parts of their supply chain that have risks of deforestation. On the other side of the coin, local and indigenous communities use the data to monitor their territories. Media groups are finding the visual data helpful in reporting as well.

Bringing Stakeholders Together

There are greater benefits in getting different people from different disciplines to use the data in their workflows. Integrating different datasets can draw more insights into land use change. We will not only be able to understand what the forests are being turned into, but also to identify the supply chain that produces that change. 

Is Culture Holding Us Back In The Fight Against Deforestation?

The role of forests in the ecosystem is a concept that indigenous communities and cultures seem to have understood and put into practice for thousands of years. However, modern cultures struggle with this aspect. A lot of value is placed on the economic incentives from deforestation more than the important role played by forests in preserving the health of our planet. We need a change of culture to one that understands the services of forests and places more value on them.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.