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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 - October 2017

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

In the first quarter of 2017, in discussion with Ugyen Wangchuck Institute Conservation and Environment (UWICE), and with approval from the PEER Project administrator at NAS, the project was transferred to Forest Protection and Enforcement Division (FPED). This transfer was proposed since FPED houses the national forestry land clearance section and results of the project could be directly used by the Division in future. Also, Kinley Tshering (C0-PI) for the project is currently heading FPED and thus overall project coordination will be easier with this transfer. Both UWICE and FPED are under the same Department and the team does not foresee any implications on project performance.

The budget release for second year of the project has been kept on hold since the project will now be directly implemented by FPED and budget release will be made to this Division. As per the re-appropriation proposed and subsequently approved by PEER, the same has been proposed to Gross National Happiness Commission for similar incorporation in RGoB budget for proper execution of the project. As part of this project, US Forest Service collaborators (GTAC, formerly RSAC) have been guiding researchers in Bhutan on how to use data and computational resources freely available through Google Earth Engine (GEE). GEE technology allows for the use of the full Landsat data record to detect landscape changes. A team comprising of 7 Bhutanese professionals led by one of the PIs will visit RSAC during month of June for a duration of 14 days to attend GEE training.

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