Google Unveils Faster, Cheaper Mechanism To Track Worldwide Deforestation Online; Support for Land Use Change Measurement, Verification and Reporting
by Jack Rosebro
|Progressive deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil as seen in satellite imagery; from left, 1975, 1989, and 2001. Sources: USGS Landsat images via Google Earth. Click to enlarge.|
Through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, Google introduced an online suite of beta software that leverages cloud computing to track worldwide land-use changes such as deforestation.
The new tools are designed to be used by policy makers, governments, the scientific community, and the public via a dedicated Forest Carbon Tracking portal, and were introduced at the UNFCCC climate summit in Copenhagen. The portal is maintained by The Group on Earth Observations (GEO), an international project to co-ordinate geospatial data through a shared system called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).
Although raw satellite imagery can be used to quantify the progression of deforestation over time, it is not responsive enough to track such activity quickly enough to inform the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) processes that quantify carbon reduction, or to help law enforcement agencies stop illegal logging.
Software currently used to enhance satellite images include the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLASlite), created by Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute of Science, as well as SAD (Sistema Alerta de Deforestation), created by Carlos Souza of the Instituto Do Homem E Meio Ambiente Da Amazonia (IMAZON). These programs, which are used throughout Latin America, are designed to be used on a stand-alone computer. However, the programs can be hampered by limited access to large satellite image databases, and can take days or weeks to process a given dataset.
|1986-2006 deforestation, in red, alongside earlier deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil. Sources: USGS Landsat images via Google Earth, as analyzed by Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLASlite) software. Click to enlarge.|
Google converted CLASlite and SAD into a set of online tools riding on top of a prototype platform that uses historical and present-day satellite images provided through Google Earth. Using cloud computing, Google was able to reduce petabyte processing time dramatically. Beta testing is schedules to be expanded early next year, and the as yet unnamed platform will eventually be made available to the public.
Human destruction of the world’s forests is a primary topic at this month’s climate talks, due in part to its acceleration in recent decades as well as the ability of remaining forests to function as key carbon sinks. UNFCCC discussions of deforestation are conducted under the umbrella of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD) framework. Increased emissions arising from deforestation were not addressed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
|Deforestation during a recent 30-day period in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Sources: USGS Landsat images via Google Earth, as analyzed by Sistema de Alerta de Desmatamento (SAD) software. Click to enlarge.|
Most strategies are clustered around the concept of making forests “worth more alive than dead”. The 2006 Stern Economic Review of Climate Change estimated, for example, that protecting forests in just eight countries could avert up to 70% of emissions from land use at an initial cost of about USD 5 billion per annum. Emissions from tropical deforestation alone is now estimated to be greater than emissions for the global transportation sector.
Google.org is developing several complementary projects related to energy and the environment, including RE<C, a project to develop utility-scale renewable energy sources that are cheaper than coal, RechargeIT, an effort to accelerate the adoption of plug-in hybrid vehicles, and Google PowerMeter, a free electricity usage monitoring tool designed to be used with smart grids.