A Google Earth for monitoring climate change. Free and accessible to all

With Open Foris, Google and FAO collaborate to create user-friendly apps that facilitate data collection, analysis and reporting: using Collect Earth technology for environmental monitoring.

The connection between digital technology and satellite imagery is revolutionising the way natural resources can be used, including monitoring deforestation and desertification. As countries strive to reduce their carbon footprint by limiting deforestation, it is important they have the right tools. These must be transparent, consistent over time and suitable. To help these countries, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has launched Open Foris, an initiative aimed at developing, sharing and supporting software tools that facilitate data collection, analysis and reporting.

A study that would take months 3 years ago

Collect Earth is a user-friendly app that can facilitate assessing deforestation and other forms of land use. This enables countries to quantify their environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions. It uses Google Earth‘s interface and the satellite imagery hosted within it to view plots of land. Google Earth uses current and historical high resolution images that are made available to everyone. Through these applications, anyone can access these databases and watch, monitor, compare, prevent and study all changes happening on the planet.

Google has opened its archives and put its algorithms to good use and FAO is deciphering these images in order to understand the effects of a changing climate on food security worldwide. Not only private sector or public companies can use these tools: even a small-scale farmer can monitor a piece of land no bigger than half a hectare (an acre) with their smartphone and prevent problems affecting their crops.

From forest monitoring to water control

Collect Earth has been used for forest monitoring and dry land assessment in Africa. The app is very flexible and can be customized to suit different environments and environmental guidelines. For example, FAO has been able to determine the health status of forests and crops. In Chile, Panama, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Tunisia and Bhutan it has organised training to use this software for its staff. On its part, Google has created a division called GEO for good, aimed at helping the interaction between Google Earth Engine and FAO’s app.

BERING GLACIER, ALASKA - UNSPECIFIED DATE:  (EDITORS NOTE: ALTERNATE CROP)  In this handout satellite composite image provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), satellite images of polar ice sheets taken in September 1996 (L) and May 2005 show the retreating ice of the Bering Glacier in Alaska. The Bering Glacier is the largest and longest glacier in continental North America. In 1996, its size reached a late twentieth-century maximum. Since then, parts of Bering Glacier's terminus have retreated more than three miles and have thinned by more than 200 feet. Photos from US satellites, declassified by the Obama White House administration, provide the first graphic images of how the polar ice sheets are retreating. According to the USGS changes in the timing of coastal glacial breakup have significant local impacts; ecological, biological, and human. Information recorded over long periods is required to understand and model the dynamics of glaciers and how changes or trends may develop and influence other systems.  (Photo by USGS via Getty Images)
Bering Glacier, Alaska: satellite imagery offers evidence of global warming © Getty Images

As a result, FAO has been able to improve forecast and control of desert locust outbreaks in Africa, and reduce camp losses and analyze water trends in specific areas. Google is helping with the efficiency, quality, timeliness and efficacy of this data collection. Whilst satellites can’t “see” the insects, they can accelerate the detection of breeding areas and make ground interventions more effective.

COLORADO - JUNE 12: A satellite image shows an overview of the Coal Seam Fire burning June 12, 2000 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The Coal Seam fire grew to 10,500 acres from 7,500 acres two days ago and has destroyed 24 structures.  (Photo Courtesy of Space Imaging/Getty Images)
Satellite imagery of the Hayman fire, a forest fire that hit the US state of Colorado in 2002 © Getty Images

Knowledge available to the public

Enormous quantities of data are readily available, and are growing every day. In the past their analysis was complex, conducted principally by universities, and the results weren’t accessible. Today, knowledge is available and free. Even though satellite imagery can’t replace local expertise, as a certain dose of ground verification will be always needed, the frontiers it offers are endless.

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