dry water basin

Changing nature of water ecosystems documented in joint Google-UN online tool

Image credit: DT

Google is teaming up with the United Nations to create a new platform that uses historical satellite imagery to demonstrate how water ecosystems have changed over time.

When completed, the platform will leverage Google’s cloud computing and earth-observation public catalogues to enable governments, NGO’s and the public to track specific environment-related development targets with a user-friendly front-end.

“We will only be able to solve the biggest environmental challenges of our time if we get the data right,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

“UN Environment is excited to be partnering with Google to make sure we have the most sophisticated online tools to track progress, identify priority areas for our action and bring us one step closer to a sustainable world.”

Vast quantities of raw satellite imagery and data will be distilled into an online platform showing how water ecosystems have changed over time and how countries can manage them to prevent further loss.

When a country seeks to implement real-time environmental action, they often find their efforts halted by gaps in critical data needed to direct those actions safely and effectively.

Focusing initially on fresh-water ecosystems such as rivers and forests, Google will produce geospatial maps and data for a publicly available platform to be launched in October in partnership with the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

“It’s basically a time slide. You can go back in time and what is does is show you where water has disappeared,” said Elisabeth Mullin Bernhardt, a programme manager at UNEP.

“It can show you where water never was and now is there. It can show you where water is seasonal.”

Through this partnership - and with Google Earth Engine’s analysis and visualisation tools - the world can finally begin to fill those gaps, enabling decision-makers to better invest in environmental services.

For Africa’s Lake Chad, for example, access to comprehensive data and images showing surrounding land and rivers could help explain why the lake, on which so many depend, is drying up so quickly, said Kenya-based Bernhardt.

Given that most countries share water sources, the information could also be used to encourage neighbouring nations to work together on strategies to manage rivers or lakes, she said.

Google is using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to process a massive amount of satellite imagery and data, stretching back over three decades, before it can be analysed.

Improved information could lead to better investment in environmental services as countries try to meet their Sustainable Development Goals, said UNEP.

Last week, a report on the UN development goals found that the world’s governments are failing those most at risk from climate change by not placing them at the heart of efforts to adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas. 

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