With widespread pessimism about the outcome of the Cancun climate summit this week, there's already one good thing that's come out of it - from Google.
The company has launched a new image database called Google Earth Engine that includes an unprecedented amount of satellite imagery and environmental data — both current and historical — online for the first time.
The idea is to provide scientists with a vast new amount of data to enable global-scale monitoring and measurement of changes in the earth’s environment.
"Why is this important? The images of our planet from space contain a wealth of information, ready to be extracted and applied to many societal challenges," says Rebecca Moore, engineering manager of Google Earth Engine.
"Scientific analysis can transform these images from a mere set of pixels into useful information—such as the locations and extent of global forests, detecting how our forests are changing over time, directing resources for disaster response or water resource mapping.
Google says it's the company's cloud infrastructure that's key to the project, as it delivers the necessary power for storage and, more importantly, analysis of the images.
The database includes Landsat satellite data archives from the last 25 years for most of the developing world, which can be used together with other datasets including MODIS. The company is promising a complete global archive of Landsat soon.
Features include tools designed to make analysis easier by pre-processing the images to remove clouds and haze.
"Google Earth Engine can be used for a wide range of applications — from mapping water resources to ecosystem services to deforestation," says Moore. "We’re particularly excited about an initial use of Google Earth Engine to support development of systems to monitor, report and verify (MRV) efforts to stop global deforestation."
The launch is timed to coincide with Cancun discussions on a framework known as REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries - which would provide financial incentives to tropical nations to protect their forests.
To support this, Google is donating 10 million CPU-hours a year over the next two years on the Google Earth Engine platform, to help developing world nations track the state of their forests.
"We hope that Google Earth Engine will be an important tool to help institutions around the world manage forests more wisely," says Moore.
"As we fully develop the platform, we hope more scientists will use new Earth Engine API to integrate their applications online — for deforestation, disease mitigation, disaster response, water resource mapping and other beneficial uses."