Google Earth Tracks Global Deforestation

Leave it to Google to launch one of the most impressive innovations at this week's International Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. The search engine giant announced the birth of Google Earth Engine, a technology platform that leverages 25 years of satellite images from LANDSAT (the longest continuously orbiting satellite around Earth) to track and measure the planet's environment.

The platform, which debuted as a prototype last year, does everything from mapping water resources to tracking deforestation—a practice that accounts for 12 to 18 percent of worldwide yearly greenhouse gas emissions. It comes with some impressive features, including tools that remove clouds and haze from images and the ability to run complicated analyses using Google's massive computing infrastructure.

Google Earth Engine has already proven its mettle with the finest-scale forest cover and water map of Mexico generated to date. Produced in collaboration with scientist Matt Hansen and Mexico’s National Forestry Commission, the map used 15,000 hours worth of computation, and 53,000 LANDSAT scenes—but took less than 24 hours to generate using Google Earth Engine. The map will be used by Mexico to make decisions about land use.

Researchers have also used the tool to produce maps illustrating forest canopy damage in the Amazon, persistent surface water in Central Africa, forest cover change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more.

Google's platform is only available for select partners at this point, but we hope that in the future the engine could be used by climate change organizations who might not otherwise have access to such computing-intensive resources.

 

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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