When Google embarked on its mission to map out all of the world’s roads with Google Maps and Google Street View, it was an ambitious mission to make the most consummate map of human development and expansion. The company’s done pretty good for itself in covering that area.
The paved portion of the world might see the most traffic (pun intended) but it is immensely dwarfed by the unpaved regions. However, a lack of roads doesn’t make a region any less important and, in fact, keeping roads from those areas might be vital to preserving the extant ecosystems of said regions. From rain forests in Brazil to the island of Madagascar, these are places in the world that would undoubtedly be damaged if not outright destroyed if for some reason roads were to cut through them. In other words, some road-less areas should stay road-less.
Now that Google has the global road system pretty much covered, it has decided to turn its attention toward mapping such enormous patches of Earth that, even in this smoky era of massive industry, have managed to remain devoid of roads. Rebecca Moore, Manager of Google Earth Outreach and Google Earth Engine, explained today why and how Google is undertaking the task of mapping out the “roadless” regions of the world and how maintaining up-to-date maps will promote environmental development as well as policies related to global climate change. By using all of the data that Google Maps possesses about the road systems of the world, she wrote, it was possible to then calculate a “road-less” area by measuring the areas of land that are bisected by roadways.
We decided to define a “Roadless Area” (for the purposes of this prototype map) as any area of land more than ten kilometers from the nearest road. Using the global-scale spatial-analytic capabilities of Google Earth Engine, we then generated this raster map, such that every pixel in the map is color-coded based on distance from the nearest road. Every pixel colored green is at least 10km from the nearest road, and therefore considered part of a Roadless Area.
From these maps it becomes more apparent how the simple construction of new roads can fragment and disturb habitats, potentially driving threatened species closer to extinction.
Keeping track of the preservation of the undisturbed natural via records of civilization’s road development is an inventive approach to environmentalism and conservation, like a ready-made outline of all the important parts of Earth. Hopefully scientists and regulators will find some use of Google Maps “road-less” data in order to keep the Earth a little less disturbed.