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Google Powers Up Its 'Earth Engine' with Eye on Saving the Amazon

Technology Allows Scientists to Analyze Satellite Imagery in Time to Act

By Amy Westervelt

Apr 29, 2010

One of the Brazilian scientists Moore had initially spoken with, Carlos Souza, has used the new tool to build an alert system linked to deforestation. He gets daily satellite imagery and uses an algorithm to determine where there are currently hot spots of suspicious activity. The software then generates an alert, which could be used to mobilize people on the ground in that area, in real time, to prevent further deforestation.

“A significant amount of logging in the Amazon is illegal, but people don’t find out until it’s too late, and then it’s all over,” Moore says. “But if you had a system in place that detected change every day and then could mobilize local NGOs or Greenpeace, for example, they could potentially intervene and stop it from going any further.”

The New Tool: Google Earth Engine

Called Google Earth Engine, the new tool will roll out completely by the next international climate conference planned for Mexico later this year.

In addition to the various algorithms that scientists will be able to create and use in the system, Moore says she expects REDD auditors, policy makers and journalists to be using the tool as well. REDD requires that those receiving compensation for reducing deforestation produce open, transparent and independently verifiable reports on what they are doing.

“Obviously, they’re not going to be able to send an auditor to every forest in the world, that’s just not feasible,” Moore points out. “But with Google Earth Engine, because all the data is in the cloud, and analysis too, it can keep track of what analysis was run, what the parameters of that analysis were, and how they got to their results — all of that will be thoroughly auditable.”

In other words, REDD recipients will be able to use the engine to produce reports, and REDD auditors will be able to use it to audit those reports.

As her role as head of Google Earth Outreach suggests, Moore is a passionate advocate of Google Earth’s potential to bring environmental and social benefits. It's a passion, she says, that stems from her own personal experiences using Google Earth images to save a redwood grove in the Los Gatos Creek Watershed, near Santa Cruz, Calif.

“These developers were trying to say that they weren’t cutting down trees, and I was able to use Google Earth to show that they were, which went a long way toward helping us win that fight,” she told the audience at the recent Turning the Tide conference in Marin, Calif.

Now, Moore hopes the tool will help to save many more forests, as well as other ecosystems.

“The way my team is building this platform, it’s intended to be a catalogue of all the world’s observation data about Earth, and that includes all the satellite data, sea surface temperatures, weather data, soil information, all of that,” she says.

“It’s not just limited to forests and land cover. We’re looking at water, too, and the next big thing we’re focusing on is water and resource modeling. If you can have a system at scale that can predict where there will be water scarcity issues, or food scarcity issues, and you can have in place, say, an early warning system, that is huge.”

Moore is quick to point out that Google will be providing the data and the tools necessary for analysis, but it will not be performing any analysis itself. And while Google Earth Engine will be available to the public, not everyone who uses it will opt to make their findings publicly available.

Bringing Internet Access to the Amazon

Clearly, making the tool widely available also relies on making Internet access widely available.

“When I was talking with many of the rainforest nations — for example, the minister of the environment for an African country — they would say, this is great but we can’t do this analysis in our country, our computers are 12 years old, and we’d love to just point our browser to this portal in the sky, but then the question becomes Internet access,” Moore says.

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