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Google Earth Engine unveils how Earth has altered

For the first time, the public can track back the environmental changes occurring on our planet's surface over time via Google Earth Engine. 

By Contributor / May 10, 2013


Google has launched Google Earth Engine, a global, zoomable timelapse map that allows you to witness how humans have altered the surface of the Earth since 1984. 

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The interactive map lets you track year-by-year changes to every spot on Earth, such as the drying up of Aral Sea in Central Asia, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in South America, or the urban expansion in the Nevada desert.

Google started this project in 2009 through a partnership with NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), who provided the search giant with more than two millions of satellite images on Earth's surface to build the map.

The pictures were collected by the Landsat satellite program, a joint mission USGS and NASA started in 1972 to observe the Earth from its orbit.

Google also worked with the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University to finalize the website, which animated the images and made them interactive.

By making satellite imagery available online, Google said its Google Earth Engine enables scientists, independent researchers, and nations to explore this massive database to detect deforestation, classify land cover, estimate forest biomass and carbon, and map the world’s roadless areas.

"Much like the iconic image of Earth from the Apollo 17 mission—which had a profound effect on many of us—this time-lapse map is not only fascinating to explore, but we also hope it can inform the global community’s thinking about how we live on our planet and the policies that will guide us in the future," said Moore.

For USGS, the launch of Google Earth Engine is the latest example of how its policy of unrestricted access and free distribution of Landsat satellite imagery to the public brings up innovation and mutual awareness of environmental conditions around Earth.

"The 40-year archive of Landsat images of every spot on earth is a treasure trove of scientific information that can form the basis for a myriad of useful applications by commercial enterprises, government scientists and managers, the academic community, and the public at large," said Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science in a USGS press release.

Google Earth Engine is also part of Time magazine's Timelapse project, a website that gathers and compiles the imagery via an interactive presentation.

In an in-depth story on Google Earth Engine, Time said the Google's project benefits not only scientists and governments, but also the public.

"For governments and environmental scientists, there is a lot of arcane data to extract from the maps and movies. For everyone else, there is something subtler but just as important: perspective. We tend our own tiny plots on Earth, our houses and yards often taking up less room than that infield-size pixel. It’s only when we get above ourselves — say, 438 miles above — that we can see how we’re changing our planet and begin to consider how we can be better stewards of it."

Other key visualizations included on Google Earth Engine are the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska, the creation of the artificial Palm islands off Dubai's coast, and the drying of lake Urmia in Iran.  

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