Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023
Using Cold War Spy Satellite Images to Monitor Trees in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains

Resourceful scientists have found a unique way to monitor the status of trees in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. They have been using images captured by Cold War spy satellites from the 1960s. These satellites were originally designed to track potential missile sites during the tense period of international tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Around 800,000 black-and-white images were taken by these spy satellites. Researchers have now found a way to convert these images into a digital format using specialized software designed for modern drones. This has enabled them to analyze which forest areas are thriving, declining, or of high ecological value.

Dr. Catalina Munteanu, a biogeographer at the University of Freiburg and the leader of the study, emphasized that understanding the history of forest systems is crucial to comprehending their current state. The EcoSpy project, funded by the European Union, has utilized these satellite images to identify approximately 2,850 square miles (7,380 square kilometers) of older forests with high ecological value. However, it has also revealed that half of these forests are at risk.

Forests are vital for biodiversity, providing a habitat for numerous species of animals, plants, and insects. However, factors such as deforestation for agriculture, wood demand for construction and heating, and the impacts of global warming have put many forests in decline.

Forests also play a crucial role in mitigating the effects of pollution and climate change. They absorb and trap harmful gases from human-related sources, acting as a natural filter for the atmosphere. Additionally, they act as a protective barrier during flooding events, safeguarding communities from excessive water levels.

Given the importance of monitoring the world’s forests, the use of satellite images from the past holds great potential in assessing other forest sites worldwide. By understanding the historical context, researchers gain valuable insights into the changes and challenges faced by these crucial ecosystems.