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Google helps researchers map world's deforestation

Bad news, forest fans. A whole raft of satellite maps, crunched by Google's Earth Engine and displayed in a lovely web-based application from researchers at the University of Maryland, has revealed that there's been a not-so-insignificant amount of forestry lost between 2000 and 2012.

That is, if you count the total square miles lost. According to a report from NBC News, researchers from the University of Maryland's Department of Geographical Sciences recorded a total loss of 2.3 million square kilometres during the aforementioned time period. The total gain was only 0.8 million square kilometres. For those not keen on the metric system, that's approximately 888,000 square miles lost to around 309,000 gained – as The Registernotes, that's an annual loss of around 0.6 per cent (or 0.006 of the total, around 32.7 million kilometres).

For a bit of an explanation behind the loss, we turn to the abstract of the "High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change" paper in Science that accompanies the web tool:

"The tropics were the only climate domain to exhibit a trend, with forest loss increasing by 2101 square kilometres per year. Brazil's well-documented reduction in deforestation was offset by increasing forest loss in Indonesia, Malaysia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Zambia, Angola, and elsewhere," it reads.

"Intensive forestry practised within subtropical forests resulted in the highest rates of forest change globally. Boreal forest loss due largely to fire and forestry was second to that in the tropics in absolute and proportional terms. These results depict a globally consistent and locally relevant record of forest change."

The mapping project was a first for the researchers, in that their use of high-resolution imagery allowed them to better observe and quantify areas of forestry gain and loss. The shots themselves were taken by the U.S. Geological Survey's Landsat 7 satellite and, in a bit of a win for the researchers, data collected by said satellite was made completely and entirely free in 2008. According to NBC, this helped overcome the barrier of cost that was previously preventing said researchers from undertaking this kind of an analysis.

Additionally, Google assisted the project by contributing the resources of its Earth Engine. In doing so, said researchers were able to process more than 650,000 high-resolution images in the span of days – as opposed to the approximately 15 years or so that it would have taken a single computer to do. Yikes.

Image: Flickr (tauntingpanda)