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Google unveils new technology to save world's forests


11 December 2009

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At the ongoing Copenhagen summit, Google’s philanthropic arm has launched a software that will make monitoring deforestation easier. The software processes the images to extract scientific information on the rapidly disappearing tree cover in the tropical region.

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.

Googlesoftware.jpg
Image credits: Guardian/ Google.org's software will make tracking the destruction of the world's forests much easier

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 Google.org 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 Google.org'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 Google.org 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.

Google.org'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 programme at WWF-US said:

"A cost-effective and transparent approach for monitoring deforestation is needed to help pave the way for a global REDD programme. 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."

 
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