Mexico map 2.jpgGoogle unveiled a powerful new mapping tool at the Cancun climate talks on Thursday that allows scientists to monitor changes in the Earth’s environment as climate change accelerates.

The search giant’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, calls the new Google Earth Engine “a planetary-scale platform for environmental data and analysis.” It combines Google Earth’s maps with 25 years’ worth of Landsat satellite images and other data.

Just as important as that data goldmine is Google’s move to put its immense computing resources at scientists’ disposal. Google.org is donating 20 million computational hours over the next two years to developing countries so they can monitor their forests as the United Nation’s prepares to implement an initiative called REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries.

“Deforestation releases a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, accounting for 12-18 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions,” Rebecca Moore, the engineering manager for Google Earth Engine, wrote in a blog post. “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.”

For instance, scientists processed 8,000 Landsat satellite images on Google Earth Engine to create a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that shows the loss of forest cover over the past decade.