At the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, search giant Google demonstrated a technology prototype that enables online, global-scale observation and measurement of changes in the earth’s forests. The technology will be provided to the world as a not-for-profit service, the company stated. The prototype is currently available to a small set of partners for testing purposes: Google noted that while it’s not yet available to the general public, the company expects to make it more broadly available over the next year.
The technology uses the help of satellite imagery to track deforestation over a period of time and measure the level of loss. While it is possible to view levels of deforestation at different times, Google.org’s engineering managers, Rebecca Moore and Dr. Amy Luers, said there hasn’t been a way to calculate how quickly the world’s forests are disappearing. “With this technology, it’s now possible for scientists to analyze raw satellite imagery data and extract meaningful information about the world’s forests, such as locations and measurements of deforestation or even regeneration of a forest,” they wrote on the company’s blog.
Google teamed up with two scientists working on ways to map deforestation via satellite imagery: Greg Asner of Carnegie Institution for Science and his program, the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLASlite), and Carlos Souza of Imazon and his program, Sistema de Alerta de Deforestation (SAD). However, Luers and Moore noted widespread use of this analysis has been hampered by lack of access to satellite imagery data and computational resources for processing. “What if we could offer scientists and tropical nations access to a high-performance satellite imagery-processing engine running online, in the Google cloud?” they asked. “And what if we could gather together all of the earth’s raw satellite imagery data – petabytes of historical, present and future data – and make it easily available on this platform?”
Google engineers worked with Asner and Souza to redevelop their software online, on top of a prototype platform Google built that gives their organizations access to terabytes of satellite imagery and thousands of computers in our data centers. The combined technologies result in a faster, more affordable, and more securing tracking system, Luers and Moore said. “We think that a suitably scaled-up and enhanced version of this platform could be as promising as a tool for forest monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) in support of efforts such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries),” they wrote.
The United Nations has already proposed a framework known as REDD that would provide financial incentives to rainforest nations to protect their forests; Google argues implementing a global REDD system will require that each nation have the ability to accurately monitor and report the state of their forests over time, in a manner that is independently verifiable. “However, many of these tropical nations of the world lack the technological resources to do this, so we’re working with scientists, governments and non-profits to change this,” Moore and Luers wrote.