GOFC-GOLD: Improving Global Forest Monitoring While Building Collegialism

Release Date:

After the storm, after Cyclone Idai exacted widespread death and destruction across Southeast Africa in March 2019, Dominick Kwesha turned to his friends at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center for assistance.

Global Observation of Forest Cover and Global Observation of Land Dynamics group

Global Observation of Forest Cover and Global Observation of Land Dynamics class, pictured during a 2009 session in South Dakota.

The man responsible for developing forest plantations and designing silvicultural practices for over 280,000 acres of commercial forests in eastern Zimbabwe needed help. Idai had lived for 18 days in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, leaving almost 1,300 people dead, thousands more missing, and a massive swath of destruction in its wake.

The cyclone and subsequent flooding destroyed more than $1 billion in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, by United Nations estimates. It decimated a million acres of crop, more than 100,000 homes, and damaged forest lands Kwesha oversees. He needed to know how bad it was.

That the African scientist thought of EROS for assistance is easy enough to understand. Years earlier, Kwesha had forged a connection with Center staff members through a program called the Global Observation of Forest Cover and Global Observation of Land Dynamics, or GOFC-GOLD. Established roughly two decades ago to improve the global monitoring of forest change, GOFC-GOLD is a loose-knit organization of volunteers from across the planet who aid countries and organizations in primarily Africa and Asia in making better use of remote sensing to monitor their resources.

The friendships Kwesha made during his training at EROS are still helping him as he assesses the damage Idai wrought on his homeland. In particular, recent and historical Landsat imagery that one of his EROS colleagues—KBR Landsat Cal/Val Engineer Anya Hartpence—helped him to acquire in the aftermath of the storm “will assist to quantify spatially the magnitude of damage and the economic loss encountered, especially in areas rendered inaccessible by the cyclone,” Kwesha said.

Such examples of collegiality and collaboration were just what international organizers had in mind when they started GOFC-GOLD. The idea was to develop capabilities and leadership in Third World countries so they could better monitor their forests’ health, as well as detect and keep tabs on fires and just generally understand land cover change better in their countries.

“The problem back then for many of these developing countries was, there simply was an inability to access the Landsat archive,” said retired EROS Chief Scientist Tom Loveland, who helped with GOFC-GOLD instruction at the Center. When Landsat data became free, “Everything from available bandwidth to the cost of accessing that bandwidth still made it prohibitive for a lot of countries, and thus a lot of researchers, to actually use the archive.”

To remedy that, NASA provided dollars to GOFC-GOLD leadership and, with the help of the International START Secretariate, workshops were organized here in the U.S. Loveland said EROS donated staff time and covered expenses for participants who came to South Dakota, including hotel accommodations, and NASA money helped to pay for participants’ time and learning at Boston University.

Cylcone Idai satellite image

Cyclone Idai

At EROS, GOFC-GOLD participants got basic introductions to remotely sensed data and how to access them. They received a little bit of data management tutoring, too, and spent a lot of time downloading imagery, Loveland said. After a week or two of that, the students then flew off to Boston University for hands-on training on how to use the data for identifying land change.

Prof. Suspense Averti Ifo of Marien Ngouabi University in the Republic of Congo said he was a teacher in the school’s Forest Ecology Department who knew little about satellites and remote sensing before he came to EROS as a GOFC-GOLD student.

“The internship at Sioux Falls and Boston changed my vision of tropical forest management,” Ifo said. “It improved the preparation of field missions and improved the implementation of experimental devices, especially when it came to recognizing forest strata and forest sites. But above all, it allowed us in my laboratory to considers studies on changes in forest cover” through deforestation and degradation.

In Senegal, Dr. Cheik Mbow was able to develop customized products and services on land use dynamics after going through GOFC-GOLD training. It also saved his Masters and doctoral students a tremendous amount of time in acquiring data, he said.

“My interest (in GOFC-GOLD) was to build a comprehensive database for West Africa and acquire a higher density of Landsat data for Senegal, where most of my studies were taking place,” Mbow said. “And my second ambition was to help as many students and researchers to access consistent EO (Earth observation) data to carry on studies of environmental change in West Africa.”

Today, Mbow is the executive director of the International START Secretariat, a core international partner of the United States Global Change Research Program that coordinates capacity building through GOFC-GOLD. Twenty years ago, the EO network globally was quite limited, Mbow said. Now, much on the remote-sensing front has changed in his native Africa since GOFC-GOLD’s establishment.

“In Senegal, I was proud to see that remote sensing, which was nascent in just one university, is now being widely applied in various universities,” he said. “There is a formal association of remote sensing experts in Senegal, and most of them were connected to our work.”

As bandwidths improved and remote sensing costs went down, it was decided three to four years ago to quit bringing GOFC-GOLD participants to the United States, and instead to do regional workshops in parts of the world where they were needed, Loveland said. The goal was to reduce travel costs and open access to the training to more people, he added.

Mbow agreed that the mass adoption of Earth observations and the development of critical information based on remote sensing requires that training now take place in Africa and Asia. “Progress means building a critical mass of users here in Africa,” he said. “And second, progress means going beyond raw data to adding the development of tools and guidelines for developing products that are relevant to the development challenges in Africa.”

Of course, GOFC-GOLD ultimately benefitted the U.S. as well, Loveland said. By building capacity in Africa and Asia and forging collegial relationships with remote sensing scientists over there, researchers here in the United States gained valuable intelligence on land cover and forest cover on the other side of the planet.

In fact, Loveland still hears from or runs into people who took part in GOFC-GOLD workshops at EROS. Those encounters confirm to him that the promise of a program launched in large part as an exercise in diplomacy 20 years ago has been more than fulfilled.

That said, GOFC-GOLD was more than just a diplomatic endeavor, Loveland added. Understanding the needs and challenges of people who rely on the USGS for Landsat data was something that was sorely needed when the program was begun. It’s still useful today, Loveland said.

“Our ability to know how free data access works or doesn’t work in different parts of the world is kind of important,” he said. “It should be something we use to constantly find ways of making products better and making them more accessible. I think GOFC-GOLD has really helped us to do that.”