Google's Global Forest Watch: Online Tool Tracks Deforestation In Near-Real Time [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on February 21, 2014 6:07 PM EST

Google's Global Forest Watch
Google's Global Forest Watch will allow users to see worldwide deforestation in near-real time. (Photo: Reuters)

Google has partnered with the World Resources Institute and 40 other organizations to create Global Forest Watch, a monitoring and alert system that uses satellite imagery and crowdsourcing to track deforestation around the world. Or, as Vice delightfully and bluntly put it, "Watch Trees Die In Near Real Time."

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"By the time we find out about deforestation, it's usually too late to take action," wrote the Google team in a blog post yesterday. "Scientists have been studying forests for centuries, chronicling the vital importance of these ecosystems for human society. But most of us still lack timely and reliable information about where, when, and why forests are disappearing. This is about to change with the launch of Global Forest Watch."

Armed with a $25-million budget, Forest Watch analyzes satellite images taken by NASA and detects deforestation due to logging and fires, among other things. In near-real time, users can watch forests change daily, as well as make corrections and comments. This will give the public a greater understanding of global tree loss, said Amy Moas, a Senior Forest Campaigner with Greenpeace.

"I think that any time you take what's happening on the ground and you put it into a useful tool that everyday people can use, it can make a huge difference in people's understanding of what's happening," said Moas. "In principle, it could be a part of the solution."

It could also play a role in keeping organizations honest. Companies that source supplies from halfway around the world can have trouble making sure their suppliers are doing the things they say they are. Now companies--and even their customers--can make sure suppliers are complying with environmentally-friendly agreements. Take Wilmar International, for instance, the largest supplier of palm oil. In January, the company pledged to protect forests from which it draws palm oil, adhering to a "zero burning" policy of not clearing land with fire. If they aren't living up to that, then anyone with a computer can catch them.

"You can see in real time whether the supplier is doing what they promised," said Nigel Sizer of the World Resources Institute. "The good guys can demonstrate that they're in compliance and the bad guys are clear for everyone to see. There's nowhere they can hide."

More than 500 million acres of forest were destroyed between 2000 and 2012, which, as Google notes, is the equivalent of losing 50 soccer fields of trees every minute, every day, for 13 years. Yikes.

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