Ecosalon News: Quick Takes


Eyes on the prize: Google announces ‘Earth Engine’

Offering scientists and conservationists a better look-see at Mama Earth, Google Labs unveiled its Google Earth Engine yesterday at the International Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. The product puts an “unprecedented amount of satellite imagery and data – current and historical – online for the first time,” says Google, allowing for monitoring and measurement of changes in the Earth’s environment. The images are designed specifically for environmental protection use, providing information on the “locations and extent of global forests, detecting how our forests are changing over time, directing resources for disaster response or water resource mapping,” among other data. One important value of the system is that it will function like a watchdog camera, supporting the development of “monitor, report and verify” (MRV) efforts to stop global deforestation. The company released an example image, generated in collaboration with Mexico’s National Forestry Commission, of a forest cover and water map of Mexico which is the finest-scale to date. The company says the map required 15,000 hours of computation, but was completed in less than a day on Google Earth Engine using 1,000 computers.


Happy birthday EPA!

Now more than ever is a good time to celebrate the Environmental Protection Agency. As the mostly on-our-side government agency is turning 40, it’s coming under severe attacks from a hostile new (corporate-sponsored) Congress, and other science and climate-change deniers around the the world. GreenBiz has it right when it says: “a testament to the scale and scope of the EPA’s successes over the past 40 years that they’ve faded into the background, or been woven into the fabric of daily life.” However, any take-it-for-granted attitude would be a grave mistake right now given the current political climate, and it’s good that sites like Green For All (, are out there helping to get the word out. There’s an informative quick take, too, from the Aspen Institute in a 10 reasons we love ’em format. Among the highlights from the agency’s 40 years are banning the widespread use of DDT, addressing the acid rain problem, championing the reuse of waste, taking the lead on reducing vehicle emissions, cleaning up our water supply and being a  general conduit for public information.


Strange life forms found in (where else?) California!

While you would figure NASA would spend a lot time looking up, the organization just announced that one of its astrobiology research efforts that’s focused way down under one of California’s weirdest lakes has led to discovery that folks are saying will fundamentally shift the way we define life – and vastly expand the playing field in terms of how we look for life on other planets. These researchers have discovered the first known microorganism able to “thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism, which lives in Mono Lake, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in the backbone of its DNA and other cellular components.” Quoted in the NY Daily News, Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology program, says, “It’s terrestrial life – but not life as we know it.” The story adds that “all life discovered so far, from teeny amoebas to enormous elephants, are composed of combinations of the same six elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus,” but the new bacteria (its catchy name is GFAJ-1) can live without any phosphorus and instead uses arsenic to build cells. Why do we care? “The implication is that we still don’t know everything there is to know about what might make a planet habitable,” says another NASA scientist. “Maybe we’ll be able to find ET now.”

Images: Google, jessica.diamond, NASA

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at