Science and Conservation Gets a Boost from Google

In just three minutes, anyone can travel thousands of miles across one of the world’s largest intact forests.

The latest technology from Google coupled with a partnership that blends science, technology and activism has resulted in a coast-to-coast virtual tour of Canada’s boreal forest. Using satellite imagery, mapping data sets, photos and narration, the Pew Environment Group, and its partner the Canadian Boreal Initiative, worked with Google Earth Outreach to create a vivid, aerial overview of one of the largest remaining forests in the world.

Screenshot from the Google Earth boreal forest tour

Take the tour (KML)! Google Earth is required, click here to download.


The tour is an important tool for both scientists and activists to be able to tell the history and ecology of the boreal to a global audience for the first time. And telling the story of the boreal is of course, a critical step on the road to its conservation.

From the outset, one of Google Earth Outreach’s priorities for its launch in Canada was to focus on the boreal, a forest that rivals the Amazon in terms of size and ecological importance yet has received less international attention. The boreal provides unparalleled, global benefits—it stabilizes the climate, provides more freshwater than any other ecosystem in the world and is the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon. Its intact habitats also support some of the world’s last healthy populations of grizzly bear, wolves, caribou and wolverine. Equally as important, the forest is the home of hundreds of aboriginal communities who rely on the land for their culture and subsistence.

Rebecca Moore, head of Google Earth Outreach, and her team worked on the development of the tour of Canada’s boreal forest: “We wanted to help them develop a virtual guided tour portraying the story of a place the world should know more about. We hope that this will also strengthen Pew’s important work to protect this globally significant forest ecosystem.”

While much of the forest is still intact, Canada’s boreal forest is increasingly affected by large-scale industrial activities. A rapidly expanding footprint of development includes 180 million acres affected by forestry, road building, mining, oil and gas extraction and hydropower.

I, along with more than a thousand other scientists in my field, have called upon the Canadian government to protect at least half of the boreal forest from development. Protecting half, at a minimum, is critical to ensuring a healthy and sustainable forest ecosystem. There’s more to be done to reach the goal of fifty percent but progress is being made to protect the forest. The work with aboriginal peoples, conservation groups, federal, provincial and territorial governments to protect the boreal has resulted in 130 million acres already in protected areas with an additional 195 million acres slated for protection in Quebec and Ontario. This is hopeful news in a world sometimes inundated with stories of ecological loss and degradation.

The Google Earth tour of Canada’s boreal reflects the beauty, scope and ecological importance of the boreal forest for an international audience. The tour showcases the beauty of this remote landscape to those who may never have the chance to visit it in person. And, with any luck, it will reinforce to policymakers that we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that the boreal forest remains a viable natural resource for the benefit of Canada and the world.

Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University where he continues as a Visiting Fellow. Previously he served as National Bird Conservation Director for the National Audubon Society. He has published numerous scientific and popular articles and book chapters and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk, published by Princeton University Press in 2007 and editor of the forthcoming book Boreal Birds of North America, published by University of California Press.

The views expressed in this guest blog are those of Jeff Wells and/or the Boreal Songbird Initiative, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. We encourage readers to join the debate with comments. National Geographic News Watch will not publish comments that are not in keeping with our community rules.

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Meet the Author
Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has published numerous scientific and popular articles, book chapters, and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (2007), Boreal Birds of North America (2011) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).