Mapping a future for nature

Google Earth
Google Earth and Earth Engine
3 min readApr 19, 2019


By Tanya Birch, Program Manager, Google Earth Outreach

Rocky Mountain National Park, Photo credit: Christian Hoeger

We cannot live without nature — we rely on nature for fresh air and water, carbon stocks, food security, medicinal discoveries, cultural traditions and for exploration. Humans are entirely dependent upon functioning ecosystems, and it’s widely understood that human pressures are putting the success of our species at risk.

To drive this home, today marks the release of a landmark paper in Science Advances called “A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding Principles, Milestones and Targets” led by Eric Dinerstein alongside leaders in conservation science. The Global Deal for Nature is a science-based, time-bound plan to save the abundance and diversity of life on Earth. The paper contends that in order for the Paris Climate Agreement to succeed, we need an accompanying deal for protecting and restoring nature — thus, A Global Deal for Nature.

The two global agreements are interdependent, according to the authors. We must protect 30% of terrestrial, freshwater and marine regions by 2030 — explained in detail in the paper — supplemented by 20% protection of nature as Climate Stabilization Areas for carbon storage. About half of the Earth’s terrestrial surface contains landscapes in a natural condition, and another recent report shows that in order to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must end the conversion of forested and natural landscapes. This contributes to avoiding further species population decline, already at 60% across key indicator species.

The Climate Stabilization Areas are largely intact lands but exist outside the protected area system, such as carbon-rich regions in the Andes-Amazon or African grassland savannah. The preservation of indigenous territories are also crucial to effective biodiversity conservation and carbon storage, as indigenous communities are often key stewards of their lands. Using Google Earth Engine, co-author Anup Joshi calculated the amount of forest remaining outside of protected areas all over the globe, in order to inform which regions are the next critical areas to protect.

Earlier analyses showing wild tigers have enough habitat to allow a doubling of their population and “An Ecoregion-Based Approach to Protecting Half the Terrestrial Realm” accelerated the science in the Global Deal for Nature paper. In 2013, the University of Maryland and Google produced a foundational dataset calculating the global forest change from 2000–2012 (updated to 2018), which has been a building block for more than 3,800 other papers since, including the research leading to this Science Advances paper.

Levels of protection in order for nature and ecosystem services to continue.

Earth Engine now has more than 25 petabytes of imagery and datasets available to scientists and researchers to study and analyze our planet, and how it’s changing in response to climate change. Big data on cloud infrastructure, and increasingly, machine learning, are fundamentally changing our ability to understand planetary boundaries and predict how and where we can protect nature for climate stabilization.

The Global Deal for Nature presents a hopeful solution to avert the sixth mass extinction and help stabilize the climate, powered by the latest technology to analyze global change from space. Visit for more.