Indonesia’s Geospatial Information Agency announces winner of US$ 1 million peatland mapping prize

The Indonesian Government’s Geospatial Information Agency (BIG) announced the winners of the Indonesian Peat Prize on the World’s Wetlands Day yesterday.

The International Peat Mapping Team, comprised of scientists from Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH (RSS), the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) and Sriwijaya University, is the winner of the US$1 million prize.

Led by the Indonesian government, the Prize is supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of peatland and mapping experts who served as judges, and by a technical team that consists of the BIG, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF). World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia is the implementing partner for the Prize.

Urgent problem posed by draining and burning of peatlands

A WRI blog explains that peatlands form when dead plants partially decay in soils soaked with tannin-rich water, and organic matter gradually accumulates in layers, over hundreds or even thousands of years. Indonesia has around 36 percent of the world’s tropical peatlands, which store up to 20 times more carbon than non-peat mineral soils.

Peat “domes” are complex hydrological formations that can range in thickness from half a meter to more than 20 meters deep. Peatland forests hold many times more carbon than a typical tropical forest, most of it below ground and have rich biological diversity.

Peatlands are often drained or burnt for agriculture and plantations. Once the above-ground natural vegetation is cleared and the dome is drained, peat soils rapidly dry out and become highly flammable. Land fires that often engulf large areas of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and most recently, Papua, are concentrated in peatlands that have been converted to industrial oil palm and timber plantations.

According to numbers from WRI, peatlands were responsible for 42% of Indonesia’s total emissions in 2015. In the 2015 fire season, forests and peat fires were estimated by researchers from Harvard University to have caused 100,000 premature deaths.  They are also estimated to have cost the Indonesian economy $16 billion, and released 1.62 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the emissions produced by nearly 350,000 cars.

Inadequate current maps

The Indonesian Peat Prize was created by BIG in response to the lack of accurate and up-to-date information around peatlands in Indonesia. Current maps showing the location of the country’s peatlands are inaccurate, and don’t show the difference between shallow and deep peat. Depth information is important because the deeper the peat is, the more ecological damage, including carbon emissions, results from disturbance. This lack of information provides cover for companies to continue peatland conversion as usual. Better peatland maps would enable government agencies to better enforce laws and regulations. They would also help companies comply with zero-deforestation commitments, and NGO watchdogs to hold the government and corporates accountable.

The winning solution

The two-year contest sought to find the best methodology to measure the extent and depth of peat in Indonesia. Forty-four teams participated, including some of the biggest names in peat research and mapping.

The methods proposed by the finalist teams included a combination of established and innovative technologies, including airborne remote sensing techniques such as laser altimetry, electromagnetic imaging and radar interferometry as well as the ground measurement. There were strong commonalities amongst methodologies proposed by the finalists and the final decision was taken based on the criteria of accuracy, cost and speed

The SAB unanimously selected the International Peat Mapping team’s solution. The Indonesian government will use this new method to protect and manage peatland areas, accelerate peatland restoration and support Indonesia’s development goals.

The International Peat Mapping Team deployed satellite-based technologies and airborne LiDAR, combined with established on-the-ground measurements.

The team used a product called WorldDEM that uses satellite imagery to model terrain at a 10-meter resolution, along with imagery from the Sentinel satellites. These satellite-based technologies were then combined with terrain models derived from airborne LiDAR (a technology that uses laser light to create 3-D terrain maps).

The methodology also included well-established on-the-ground measurements in order to create a model that could accurately estimate peat thickness. Finally, the team verified the peat data resulting from the combination of all these technologies with on-the-ground measurements. The team included mapping and peatland experts from Indonesia, Germany and the Netherlands: Prof. Dr. Florian Siegert, Dr. Uwe Ballhorn, Peter Navratil, Prof. Dr. Hans Joosten, Dr. Muh. Bambang Prayitno, Dr. Bambang Setiadi, Felicitas von Poncet, Suroso and Dr. Solichin Manuri.

Prof. Dr. Hasanuddin Z. Abidin, Head of BIG, said, “BIG is pleased and excited that the Prize has produced the best method for mapping peatland that combines accuracy, affordability and timeliness to support BIG’s work in mapping and providing geospatial data and information. BIG will lead the process of using the winning method as a reference to improve the current standard for mapping peatland in a scale of 1:50,000, and will start the process by issuing a BIG regulation on peatland mapping in a scale of 1:50,000. By standardizing the method, we can have accurate peatland data and information, which will protect our peatland in an effective and efficient way.”

Dr. Bambang Setiadi, an Indonesian member of the International Peat Mapping team, said there is a clear evidence that when groundwater level in a tropical peat swamp forest is low during dry season, the peat will be more susceptible to fires. “This methodology will support to acquire the topographic elevation data for peatland, including dome-shaped peatland, which can be used to understand groundwater level and other hydrological assessments for restoration purpose.”

“The winning method shows breakthrough technology and a transparent way to map peatlands in the most accurate, affordable and timely way. The Prize also represents international collaboration and attention to meet the global challenge to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius,” said Dr. David Schimel,the SAB co-chair and Senior Research Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Supporting Indonesian government’s peatland protection initiatives

The Peat Prize complements the Indonesian government’s initiatives to protect peatland and maintain communities’ welfare. President Joko Widodo has made peatland management a priority in order to achieve the country’s climate commitment under the Paris Agreement. The Prize also supports the government’s One Map Policy that seeks to consolidate spatial information on a common platform.

The Government of Indonesia has introduced a suite of initiatives designed to stop further peatland conversion and restore some of the drained and denuded area. The Peatland Restoration Agency was established in 2016 aiming to restore 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of peatlands within five years, and President Joko Widodo issued a decree establishing a moratorium on further commercial development of peatlands pending better mapping and zoning. Subsequently, the Ministry of Environment and Forests came up with a series of implementing regulations. Improved mapping would support the enforcement of these regulations.

Prof. Dr. Supiandi Sabiham, the SAB co-chair and the Head of the Indonesia’s Peatlands Association said, “The Scientific Advisory Board appreciates the efforts of all finalists to develop the method to map and protect peatlands, which are important for meeting Indonesia’s climate commitments. Managing peatland sustainably and responsibly is thus critical, and that’s where the Indonesian Peat Prize can play a huge role.”

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