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Friday, April 19, 2024

Google Earth Now Shows You Our Planet’s Slow Deterioration

Watch closely as the reservoir dries up, the oil spill spreads, and the rain forest disappears.

Today, Google announced a new 3D time-lapse feature in its Google Earth platform. It allows users to navigate to any spot on the globe and press Play to watch the geography change. The timeline goes back 37 years, from 1984 through today. Each frame of the time-lapse is pulled from one year of imagery. While the playback is running, users can move the camera’s position to view the shifting landscape from different angles.

The project is the result of collaboration between Google, NASA, the US Geological Survey, the European Commission, and the European Space Agency. The interactive video combines satellite imagery from NASA’s Landsat program and the EU’s Copernicus Project, both of which are intended to provide near-continuous imagery of the surface of the planet. Those resources all mashed together result in a staggering amount of data. Google says the time-lapse feature draws from 20 petabytes of satellite imagery, combined to create a 4.4-terapixel video (that's 4.4 million megapixels) that maps to the surface of the globe.

This isn’t Google Earth’s first foray into repackaging time. In 2014 the company released a time-lapse tool inside its Google Earth Engine. It wasn’t a feature in the Google Earth app proper, and it was limited to a top-down, 2D perspective.

Google says that this new 3D time-lapse is a way to provide more context about the ways humans have affected the Earth. In the company’s featured time-lapsed videos, shorelines shift, glaciers recede, ice caps melt.

“The time-lapse distills that enormous archive of satellite data into an easily understandable picture of our changing planet,” says Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth Engine and outreach. “It makes the abstract concrete, and we hope that this can ground everyone in an objective, common understanding of what's actually happening on the planet and inspire action.”

While the new tool may serve to raise awareness about our current climate crisis, a larger challenge is translating that awareness into action.

“There are a substantial number of people who still believe that human activity cannot alter the planet as a whole,” says Jennifer Marlon, a environmental science researcher at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “Those are probably not the people who are going to be surfing around Google Earth. But maybe one of their kids will encounter it in school and bring it home and say, ‘Hey, check this out.’”

Google Earth’s time-lapse feature is available today, worldwide.

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