In Box

Green Space

One of the more obscure subsections in furniture retailer IKEA’s supplier contracts is a collection of satellite images. Why does IKEA need pictures from space to sell bargain-basement bookshelves? The Swedish company wants to keep suppliers’ environmental practices in check. The nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) provides IKEA with satellite imagery to help the company ...

One of the more obscure subsections in furniture retailer IKEA’s supplier contracts is a collection of satellite images. Why does IKEA need pictures from space to sell bargain-basement bookshelves? The Swedish company wants to keep suppliers’ environmental practices in check. The nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) provides IKEA with satellite imagery to help the company ensure it doesn’t buy wood logged from pristine Russian forests. Likewise, ABN AMRO, a prominent Netherlands-based bank, uses WRI’s satellite imagery to investigate the environmental practices of logging companies before investing in them.

WRI’s interactive forest project, which uses the Internet to share data with governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector, is one example of how online space imagery is helping the environmental cause. WRI’s site can create customized maps that include forest conditions, protected areas, and roads. In images of the boreal forests that stretch across Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, and Russia, for instance, illegal logging roads are visible. Another global environmental initiative, ReefBase, uses satellite images and collaborates with a number of government agencies to monitor over 10,000 coral reefs around the world. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) uses images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and from Europe’s Mercure satellite, donated to the UNEP by the European Space Agency in 1997, as part of its environmental initiatives.

One barrier stands in the way of satellite imaging’s widespread availability online: money. Tasks such as monitoring illegal logging require a steady stream of data, which can be prohibitively expensive. To date, only two private U.S. companies have launched high-resolution satellites that produce usable images: Space Imaging and Digital Globe. Their very precise images run about $4,000 for a single 8-mile-by-8-mile shot, a massive amount of money for nonprofits like WRI that require thousands of satellite images each year. Linda Delgado, codirector of WRI’s forest program, hopes competition will bring down prices. "Satellite technology will tremendously enhance our ability to manage our forests, and we’re just at the cutting edge of the beginning of that," she says.

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