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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

Monitoring forest cover changes in Bhutan using Landsat data in a cloud-computing environment

PI: Kinley Tshering (, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation and Environment
U.S. Partner: Kevin Megown, Remote Sensing Applications Center, USDA Forest Service
Project Dates: November 2015 - April 2018

Project Overview

In recent times, the expanded availability of Landsat has led to an explosion of Landsat analysis algorithms that are based on the pixel rather than global image statistics. This has made it possible to examine the state as well as the dynamics of biophysical systems. This pixel-based view of image processing is a fundamental shift in the way remote sensing analysis is performed. A key scientific objective of this project is to exploit forest cover-related data for Bhutan in the Landsat data archive using Google Earth Engine (GEE). In many ways, the use of GEE for image processing is a paradigm shift in remote sensing analysis. The shift to being able to interact with the entire Landsat data archive and perform image processing tasks using just a Web browser interface is highly relevant for Bhutan. Until now, this approach has not been applied to detection and monitoring of forest cover change in Bhutan, as well as adjoining countries in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas. The results from this project using this approach will be in line with the efforts of the NASA-USAID SERVIR program to improve environmental management and resilience to climate change through integration of earth observation information and geospatial technologies into development decision-making.

This project is relevant to USAID’s global objectives to support land tenure policies and resource rights, fighting deforestation, protecting biodiversity, and building climate change resilience. The Constitution and National Forest Policy of Bhutan require the country to maintain 60% forest cover. Results from numerous assessments in the past are difficult to compare and use for meaningful interpretation because they used varied techniques and different satellite data. Meanwhile, there is increasing deforestation, degradation, and diversion of forest land due to population and development pressures. A key challenge for the Government has thus been in getting reliable estimates of changes in forest cover over over time for making informed policy decisions and in keeping track of where actual changes are happening on the ground. A consistent monitoring system is thus desirable for keeping track of forested land in Bhutan. Forest cover change is an important indicator for not only ecosystems but also for livelihood systems in Bhutan because the predominantly rural population still depends directly on adjoining forests for their daily needs. Therefore, spatial and temporal data on changes in forest cover will be key to ground implementation of policies concerning sustainable development and livelihoods, management of natural resources, environmental conservation, and ecosystem services, especially in rural Bhutan. In addition, consistent forest cover change statistics will be necessary for Bhutan's accession into international funding processes like REDD+ and Carbon-trade.

Summary of Recent Activities

During the reporting period ending December 2017, the project staff visited hydropower sites identified as forests with rapid land use change. Discussions were held with SERVIR-ICIMOD on technical collaboration and organization of technology sharing workshop to be held at the end of the project. The project staff submitted 1st year project progress report and the budget proposal for 2nd year to the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC).

The project was officially transferred from UWICE to Forest Protection and Enforcement Division (FPED) of the Department of Forests and Park Services (DoFPS). This was done in line with resignation of Dr. Nawang Norbu (Co-PI and also the Director of UWICE) and departure of Mr. Sangay Pelzang (IT Staff) for long-term studies. The Forest Land and Clearance Section under FPED was assigned the key role for overseeing implementation of the project activities under the overall supervision of Mr. Kinley Tshering (Co-PI and Chief of FPED). The PI and his staff met with USAID officials in Kathmandu, Nepal to sensitize on the project and to facilitate discussions on potential future application of project results in the region. The USAID officials introduced the project team to their contacts at SilvaCarbon in Bangkok, Thailand. Emails have been exchanged with the officials at SilvaCarbon and the project staff will coordinate a visit to their office in Bangkok. 

In December 2017, the project team organized and attended the GEE training trip to GTAC, Salt Lake City, Utah. They met with the US partner at Forest Service who conducted training for them. 

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