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Google Earth to monitor deforestation


  • Google to incorporate leading deforestation tracking and assessment technologies into Google Earth
  • Partnership will enable rapid respond to deforestation occurring on the ground
  • Prototype for the Amazon, other regions to be covered in the future

    It what could be a critical development in helping tropical countries monitor deforestation, Google has unveiled a partnership with scientists using advanced remote sensing technology to rapidly analyze and map forest cover in extremely high resolution. The effort could help countries detect deforestation shortly after it occurs making it easier to prevent further forest clearing.

    Deforestation and forest degradation is a larger source of greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. It is also a threat to biodiversity, indigenous cultures, and critical ecosystem services like rainfall provision and flood control. Thus a newly proposed mechanism that aims to slow deforestation by compensating countries and landowners for protecting forests has won wide support at climate talks in Copenhagen. But to qualify for payments under Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), countries must be able to quantify reductions in deforestation against a historical baseline — a tall order for most countries (not even wealthy countries like Australia and Canada provide accurate data on their forests). Therefore a tool that enables countries to measure past deforestation and track forest disturbance and loss shortly after it occurs would be of great value in efforts to fight climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.

    Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil, from 1975 to 2001. Landsat images courtesy USGS.

    Two institutions have developed technologies that come a long way towards making this tool a reality: the Carnegie Institute for Science’s CLASlite system (led by Greg Asner), which uses satellite imagery and laser deployed from airplanes (airborne Light Detection and Ranging – LiDAR) to build high-resolution, 3-D maps of forests that can measure logging and other disturbance; and Imazon’s Sistema de Alerta de Deforestation (SAD) (led by Carlos Souza), which uses satellite imagery to rapidly detect and report deforestation. Now through a prototype project, Google brings the power of these technologies online, harnessing its massive computing cloud.

    CLASlite online: This shows deforestation and degradation in Rondonia, Brazil
    from 1986-2008, with the red indicating recent activity.

    SAD online: The red “hotspots” indicate deforestation
    that has happened within the last 30 days. The result of running SAD in a region of recent deforestation pressure in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

    “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,” wrote Rebecca Moore and Amy Luers in a blog post announcing the partnership.

    “By providing computational horsepower and easy access to massive data sets, this new technology will dramatically lower the cost and complexity for tropical nations to monitor their forests using CLASlite and other forest analysis programs,” added Luers in a separate statement.

    This CLASlite image of the Amazon Basin shows deforested regions in pink and blue, and intact forests in green.

    The technology is so far only available for the Amazon and the Andes region in South America, but it may someday be expanded to the Congo basin, other parts of Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Eventually the system could be truly global with near real-time monitoring of forest cover (as is currently available with fire-tracking).

    For more on how remote sensing can help save forests and wildlife, please see How satellites are used in conservation.

    Related Links

    Seeing the forest through the cloud (Google Blog)



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