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Durham University

Department of Geography

Remote-Sensing Tools for Rapid and Cost-Effective Forest Management

Remote sensing methods developed by Donoghue and others during and after the ForestSAFE project have had impact on forest management and planning in the UK and Sweden, and in New Zealand through adoption by international consultancies. They also underpin our ongoing contribution to Guyana's engagement in the UN REDD+ scheme.


Our research has made pioneering contributions to the practical and cost-effective use of remote sensing for the management and planning of forest change by developing new algorithms and statistical models with which to make precise quantitative assessments of forest cover and forest attributes. This research underpins the use of remote sensing as a cost-effective tool for aspects of forest resource management, planning, and policy compliance in many countries.

In 2001 - 2005 we were was the main scientific partner in the EU ForestSAFE project to develop and promote remote-sensing methods for the benefit of management and environmental protection in the state-owned and commercial forest sectors. Working with the Swedish Agricultural University, the UK Forestry Commission and the Swedish Forest Agency, we developed methods for estimating key forest attributes and change over time to a higher precision than previously possible.

Image-processing algorithms were devised to make use of these new sources, statistical models were used to relate manually-estimated attributes to the new remotely-derived indices, and rigorous statistical intercomparisons were made between estimates derived from different remote sensing methods to establish which methods (or combinations) were most effective for different purposes and in different types of forest. High-resolution satellite imagery was shown to be much more versatile than Landsat, and airborne LiDAR was shown to be particularly good for assessing timber volume and carbon stock.

Examples of Impact


From 2011 the Guyana Forestry Commission has contracted first Pöyry and then Indufor Asia Pacific to assess nationwide forest cover and degradation as part of its engagement.

With the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation programme (REDD+). Guyana stands to gain up to $US 250m in payments for conserving forest stocks and thereby avoiding CO2 emissions, however, the rules of these partnerships require Guyana to establish a system to monitor, report and verify forest resources and carbon stock changes and Norway to procure an independent verification of these assessments before making any payments. The foundations of the accuracy assessment process were based on Durham research and methods.

New Zealand

Dr Peter Watt, who worked at Durham University on the ForestSAFE project, has been instrumental in the operational application of the tools for forest remote sensing. Working in New Zealand Pöyry Ltd (an international forestry consultancy company) his expertise (based on DU methods) helped win a contract from the NZ Ministry for Environment to use airborne LiDAR to quantify tree height and density in sample areas and extrapolate the results to obtain a first estimate of New Zealand’s above-ground forest carbon stock for the first assessment period of the Kyoto protocol. This was the first time airborne laser scanning was used for a national carbon stock assessment. Since 2011, when Watt moved to become head of resource mapping at Indufor, the estimates have been refined further, again using Durham research methods, after the Ministry decided to fly LiDAR transects over the whole country.