North Korea Logging in Protected Forest Discovered With Google, NASA Data

logging tree trunk photo

Photo via Warloofer via Flickr CC

Busted! You just can't get away with anything these days, thanks to watchful eyes that utilize Google Earth. After looking at data from both Google and NASA satellite data, a student from Purdue University found evidence of North Korea logging in the Mount Paektu Biosphere Reserve, a 360,000 acre forest protected as a United Nations forest preserve.According to Purdue, professor Guofan Shao started to notice something strange in their data. He studies this reserve to understand the impacts of biodiversity on the ecology, economy, and sociology and reduce biodiversity loss in 551 sites worldwide. Mount Paekdu has one of the world's highest levels of plant biodiversity and is home to the endangered Siberian tiger, which means he and his colleagues watch this area like hawks. So when NASA satellite data showed changes happening to the land, he turned to Google Earth to get high resolution images to see what was going on.

"Particularly in the core area, there should be no human activity - no deforestation," Shao said. "But when you look at the data with Google Earth, you can see the forest is no longer intact."

Turns out, as much as 75% of the forest in the core area of the preserve has been cut down in large strips. However, without permission to talk to North Korean officials or visit the site, Shao has to figure out why the trees were logged - will the swaths of cleared forest become farmland?

mt paektu photo

"Mount Paektu, a volcanic mountain that has been extinct since 1702, forms part of a national border between North Korea and the People's Republic of China... The dark blue spot in the upper left hand corner of the image is Heaven Lake - one of the highest crater lakes in the world." Photo via ESA

"I don't really understand what's going on in the nature area," Shao said. "They may want to grow something, or they may just want the timber."

While Shao plans to monitor the biosphere for additional changes, he also says he hopes more organizations and governments will get involved in protecting the important area.

Thanks to Google Earth, at least the world is aware there is a problem occurring at all. And it could spark change. Tribes in the Amazon rainforest have been able to successfully use Google Earth to monitor, slow, and even stop illegal deforestation on their land. The tool is perfect as the eyes and ears of activist organizations who can help keep this and other biospheres in tact. Google has even launched a special deforestation tool with the hopes of making trees more valuable alive than dead.

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