Google Earth Engine debuts
In what promises to be one of the most impressive innovations to come out of the Cancun climate talks, the philanthropic arm of Google is launching a new technology platform Thursday that will allow worldwide monitoring and measurement of changes in the earth's environment.
Google Earth Engine draws on 25 years of satellite images collected by LANDSAT, the longest continuing orbiting satellite on earth, to provide what the project's engineering manager Rebecca Moore calls "a living, breathing model of the earth with all of the data and analysis that's available."
The new product, which Google.org developed over the past two years and will post online for free, could prove critical in helping developing nations track deforestation rates in real time as well as other key environmental changes. One of the few substantive achievements the United Nations climate talks may produce is an agreement on how to compensate rainforest nations for preserving their forests in order to absorb carbon dioxide, but these efforts need to be validated by tracking data that proves the regions in question face the pressure of deforestation and have been able to resist it.
Google also will provide 20 million CPU hours free of charge to the developing world and scientific community in order to help these groups take advantage of the new analytical tool. This could provide a basis for enforcing agreements forged under the U.N. initiative known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD, which may be finalized as early as next week in Cancun.
Moore said the project aims to show "how the earth is changing under a changing climate, and use that information to drive public policy... We're hoping that it will elevate people's understanding of the planet."
Unlike some Google Labs products that have been cloaked in secrecy, Google has collaborated with scientists such as Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Carlos Souza of Imazon and Matt Hansen of the Geographic Information Science Center at South Dakota State University to help hone its forest monitoring tool.
Along with Hansen and CONAFOR, Mexico's national forestry commission, Google has already used the platform to create the finest-scale forest and water map ever made of Mexico. It required 15,000 hours of computation, which normally would have taken three years if run on a single computer, but the group completed it in less than a day on Google Earth Engine by using 1,000 computers in parallel to process more than 53,000 LANDSAT scenes taken between 1984 and 2010. CONAFOR provided data it had collected on the ground to calibrate and validate the algorithm.
"No one has ever been able to analyze that entire data set for Mexico, or even come close," Moore said.
Scientific experts are optimistic that policymakers can make progress on saving tropical forests worldwide, in part because of technological advances and the political will developing countries such as Brazil have shown in recent years.
In a telephone press conference organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners Wednesday, Doug Boucher, who directs the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the global trend in deforestation "is one of the few bright spots amid the otherwise gloomy news as far as climate change is concerned."
Brazil, Boucher noted, has cut its annual carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation from 5.5 billion tons several years ago to an average of 3.5 billion over the past five years.
See the gallery of Google Earth Engine's satellite images here.
| December 2, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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