Google Unveils Earth Engine to Save World’s Forests

Protecting the world’s forests will be a crucial way to fight climate change, given deforestation contributes to more carbon emissions than all vehicles combined. Now Google (s GOOG) has emerged as a key warrior in the deforestation battle. On Thursday morning in Cancun, Mexico at the COP 16 U.N. climate negotiations, the search engine giant unveiled Google Earth Engine, a product which combines an open API, a computing platform and 25 years of satellite imagery available to researchers, scientists, organizations and government agencies.

While the software and satellite imagery in Google Earth are already being used to look at world climate change data, Google Earth Engine offers tools and parallel processing computing power to groups to be able to use satellite imagery to analyze environmental conditions in order to make sustainability decisions.

Google says it will also donate 20 million CPU hours of Google Earth Engine to groups in the developing world. The project comes out of, and Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager, Google Earth Engine, told me in a phone interview from Cancun that the computing donation is an example of shifting to a model of “tech-driven philanthropy.”

So what can organizations do with the petabytes of data that Google has just unleashed? As an example, Google and the government of Mexico have created the first comprehensive,¬†high-resolution map of Mexico’s forests. The map, featured on the Google Earth Engine site, combines 53,000 landsat images, to produce a 6 gigabyte product. The Mexican government and NGOs will be able to use the forest map to make decisions about land use, sustainable agriculture, and species protection. Moore said while it’s still early days (they just finished the Mexico forest map this week), groups have already used the forest map to look at Monarch butterfly nesting habits.

Using Google Earth Engine’s parallel computing platform, the Mexico forest map used 20,000 CPU hours across a thousand computers, and took less than a day to produce, Moore told me. On a single computer, it would have taken 3 years to build. Condensing the time it takes to bring more data and analysis to fighting deforestation and protecting the environment will be fundamental to the overarching battle of fighting climate change.

Sharing and donating computer power for fighting climate change has been a trend this week. The Department of Energy awarded time on two of the world’s fastest super computers, the equivalent of 1.7 billion processor hours, to 57 research projects this week that could develop energy technology innovation.

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