New tool from Google shows how the planet is changing in near real time
A new tool from Google Earth Engine and the nonprofit World Resources Institute extracts satellite data to create detailed maps in near real time. Called Dynamic World, it zooms in on the planet in 10 by 10 meter squares from satellite images collected every two to five days. The program uses artificial intelligence to classify each pixel into nine categories ranging from bare ground to trees, crops and buildings.
Researchers, nonprofits, and other users can “explore, track, and monitor changes in these Earth ecosystems over time,” says Tanya Birch, senior program manager for Google Earth Outreach. While the tool was under construction last year, Birch used it in the days following the Caldor Fire, a wildfire that scorched more than 200,000 acres in California. Pixels in satellite images quickly moved from the category of “trees” to “shrubs and brush”.
Scientists used to rely on statistical tables that were sometimes only published every five years, says Fred Stolle, deputy director of the Forests program at the World Resources Institute. “It’s clearly not enough anymore,” he said. “We are moving so fast, and the impact is so rapid, that satellites are now the way to go.”
Researchers and planners are already using satellite data in some applications – the World Resources Institute, for example, has already worked with Google to create Global Forest Watch, a tool that can track deforestation using satellite images. But the new data is much more detailed; now it’s sometimes possible to see if one or two trees are down in a rainforest, even when a larger area is intact, Stolle says.
In cities, planners could use the data to easily see which neighborhoods don’t have enough green space. Researchers studying smallholder farming in Africa could use it to see the impacts of drought and the timing of harvest. Because the data is continuously updated, it is also possible to watch the changing seasons throughout the year all over the planet. The data goes back five years, and using the new tool, anyone can enter date ranges to see how a location has changed over time.
“I encourage people to dive into it and explore it,” Birch says. “There is a lot of depth and a lot of richness in Dynamic World. . . . I feel like it really pushes the boundaries of AI-powered mapping in an incredibly new way.