A forest cover and water map of Mexico (source: blog.google.org)

Last week, at the beginning of the COP 16 Climate Conference in Cancun, Google launched its Google Earth Engine, a new tool by Google.org (the technology-driven philanthropic part of the gigantic organization). The Engine, a planetary-scale platform for environmental data & analysis, merges the world’s satellite imagery (more than 25 years of data good for trillions of scientific measurements) and makes it available online. The purpose of the tool is to help scientists, conservationists, environmentalists and independent researchers to track changes in the Earth’s environment and to map trends and quantify differences to the Earth’s surface. Possible applications include mapping and detecting of deforestation, mapping of land use trends and water resources and development of custom applications to suit the needs of those researching the Earth’s environment.

Thanks to Google’s large-scale cloud-computing infrastructure, data can now be crunched much faster than on stand-alone research computers. Moreover, data that was difficult or impossible to process or analyze in the past will now become widely available for analysis and research.

The challenge has been to cope with the massive scale of satellite imagery archives, and the computational resources required for their analysis. As a result, many of these images have never been seen, much less analyzed. Now, scientists will be able to build applications to mine this treasure trove of data on Google Earth Engine, providing several advantages.
- blog.google.org

With the launch of the Google Earth Engine, Google announced that it would donate 10 million CPU-hours a year over the next two years on the Google Earth Engine platform, to strengthen the capacity of developing world nations to track the state of their forests, in preparation for REDD.

Although the Google Earth Engine can be translated to many environmental monitoring and research application, Google is particularly interested in mapping and detecting deforestation; one of the main concerns and action points on the agenda at the COP16 Climate talks.

For the least developed nations, Google Earth Engine will provide critical access to terabytes of data, a growing set of analytical tools and our high-performance processing capabilities. We believe Google Earth Engine will bring transparency and more certainty to global efforts to stop deforestation.
- blog.google.org

Additional resources:
Google Earth Engine introduction from Google.org blog
Google Earth Engine web space
More on cloud computing from Wikipedia