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Google Unveils Breakthrough Technology to Monitor Deforestation

by Alok Jha

The software can processes satellite images to extract scientific and tracking information about how much forests have changed

Google-announced-new-tech-001.jpg Tracking the destruction of the world's forests is to become much easier for scientists and forest managers, thanks to a software tool unveiled by search-engine giant Google's philanthropic arm today.

The software, which uses Google's computing resources to extract scientific information from decades of satellite images of forests, was demonstrated at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. "We hope this technology will help stop the destruction of the world's rapidly disappearing forests," said a statement on the blog.

"Emissions from tropical deforestation are comparable to the emissions of all of the EU, and are greater than those of all cars, trucks, planes, ships and trains worldwide. According to the Stern Review – the report prepared for the British government in 2006 on the economics of climate change by Lord Nicholas Stern – protecting the world's standing forests is a highly cost-effective way to cut carbon emissions and mitigate climate change."

The UN mechanism to reduce deforestation is called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (Redd), a system whereby richer countries would provide financial incentives to protect forests in poorer nations. For Redd to be successful, however, countries need ways to accurately monitor and report on the state of their forests.

In's prototype software, environmental authorities or NGOs interested in monitoring forests start with satellite images of their area and track how the size and shape of the tree cover has changed over time. The software can processes the images to extract useful scientific and tracking information about how much the forests have changed.

For the analysis, the team worked with Greg Asner of Carnegie Institution for Science and Carlos Souza of Imazon. Technology developed by Asner and Souza is used in Latin America to track changes in forest cover – but mainstream use of the models has been slow due to lack of access to high-quality satellite images and the computer power needed to carry out the analysis.'s solution is to enhance the Asner and Souza models using its own computing power. "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? We decided to find out, by working with Greg and Carlos to re-implement their software online, on top of a prototype platform we've built that gives them easy access to terabytes of satellite imagery and thousands of computers in our data centres," it wrote.

Colby Loucks, deputy director of the conservation science program at WWF-US said: "A cost-effective and transparent approach for monitoring deforestation is needed to help pave the way for a global Redd program. If Google's system can be expanded to cover forests globally and access near real-time imagery, it can potentially be a powerful tool that helps tropical countries monitor forest loss."

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

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Does anyone know the technical details of this? How often will it be updated? What's the spatial resolution? What areas of the world does it cover? Will it be free and publicly available? What satellites does it use?

Posted by: Bill Brower on 14 Dec 09

GIS is a very powerful process. If we use this data correctly it will be quite an asset.

"I am here to serve."
The Window Man

Posted by: The Window Man on 17 Dec 09

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