The loss of the earth’s forest cover is disconcerting for many reasons: Forests house distinct ecosystems and sometimes, as in the Amazon, dwindling species; in vulnerable coastal areas, they provide one of the best buffers between inland communities and rising waters; and, they are key to the effort to slow our changing climate, since they absorb a third of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels. But scientists trying to quantify the ravages of deforestation found them frustratingly difficult to track—until now. Thursday, a team of researchers published a collection of time-lapse maps in the journal Science, and not only is their Rorschach Test-like flow mesmerizing, it also tracks where forests have dwindled and where they’ve recovered between 2000 and 2012. Overall, 888,000 square miles of forest were lost in that time, according to the maps, which were made using 650,000 NASA satellite images and are accurate down to 11 square mile increments. The lead researcher, Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland, partnered with Google Earth to assemble the maps; the plethora of data would have taken his computer 15 years to process, he told Climate Desk. He attributed the loss “to logging, urban development, strip mining, and other human impacts,” with some additional impact from “fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.”
The swathes of green in Hansen’s full map, above, show the extent of forest cover. Red shows areas where forest has been lost, blue shows gain, and purple marks a combination of the two. Purple tends to show up in areas where commerical forestry or highly-developed logging industries necessitate frequent replanting, such as Canada and the American south. Below, watch a video by Climate Desk, which takes viewers on a tour of some of the heaviest deforestation, and see maps that highlight forest loss (red) and growth (blue).