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Environment

Is Google the Guardian Angel of Rainforests?

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Google.org, the non-profit division of the search engine giant Google, wants to help scientists monitor deforestation by harnessing the power of its popular Google Earth and Maps applications. 

Its new "high-performance satellite imagery-processing engine" can process terabytes of information on thousands of Google servers while giving access to the results online. The platform, which was demonstrated on Thursday at the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, would allow anyone using the tool to monitor whether or not trees were being chopped down in a given forest. It analyzes satellite images to show forest changes over a given time period [CNET].

The announcement comes at a time when delegates from around the world are attempting to negotiate a treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Google debuted their new program at Copenhagen because they are hoping that their software could help countries conform to the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) program proposed by the United Nations, in which industrialized nations would pay developing nations to keep their forests standing.

Google's program is based on recommendations included in reports such as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which found that keeping forests intact is one of the cheapest ways to reduce carbon emissions. Forests soak up and store carbon dioxide, but when they are cleared during deforestation all that C02 is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Politicians can propose all the limits they want, however there must be tools to monitor their countries' emissions to ensure they are keeping their word--for example, by not allowing their farmers to clear cut forests to plant lucrative crops.

But actually tracking the changes in forestation can be a significant challenge, since it generally takes place across vast tracks of remote land and satellite imagery may be beyond the financial reach of developing-world governments or the research organizations that work with them. Furthermore, it's essential that nations use a standardized, validated method of measuring changes, or it will leave any emissions tracking system open to misinterpretation, and any credit system open to abuse. [Ars Technica]. Google's software is still undergoing testing, but they expect to have it ready by next year, and it will be freely available to all through Google.org.

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Image: USGS

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