Google Earth Engine maps 25 years of data

Congo Basin Water Map: Original satellite image (left) and derived water map (right), created using Google Earth Engine.

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Cutting down and burning forests accounts for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations wants to reduce that, by offering carbon credits in exchange for saving trees. And now Google wants to help.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


EVE TROEH: A few years ago, the Google Earth team went to Brazil to help scientists and tribal leaders make videos about illegal logging in the rain forest.

Google engineer Rebecca Moore worked with the Brazil team.

REBECCA MOORE: They said what we really need Google to do is help us stop the deforestation of the Amazon. We're losing over a million acres a year.

She says they wanted to see illegal logging as it happened.
They wanted to monitor forest density over time.
And they said reporting logging forest by forest...was worthless.

MOORE: You could stage armed guards all around that forest and...well...the illegal logging activities, for example, move up the road to a different forest. To really be effective, you need to do it continent scale, global scale.

Moore says there was plenty of large scale satellite data available. 25 years' worth, in face. But no one had stitched it together. So Google donated its mega computer processors for the task. And her team built software to interpret the data.

Google Earth Engine launched last month. Moore shows me how it can cruise the world's green belt.

MOORE: We're gonna fly into the Mexico forest map...Wooo...Yeah, yeah, yeah...

And there are data layers...about temperature and density...for free.

MOORE: We can update it every day. We're creating essentially a living, breathing model of the planet.

It lets scientists and government officials monitor forests globally, for the first time.
David Diaz is with the nonprofit Forest Trends.

DAVID DIAZ: Google Earth Engine allows everyone to kind of use the same currency.

He says "currency" because the United Nations is putting a price on forests - namely the carbon they soak up. That could make it more profitable to save them than destroy them. Wealthy nations can pay to protect forests as a way to offset their own pollution. And Earth Engine helps verify that transaction is working.

DIAZ: The donor countries want to have kind of a reliable metric for determining who is performing and who is not performing.

So the more that countries like Brazil and Mexico can digitally *prove they're saving their trees, the more money they stand to make.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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