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Google Earth Exposes Four Decades of Climate Change

Jonny Rogers reports on Google Earth’s latest update revealing how the planet has changed over the past 37 years.

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Photo by Marcin Jozwiak

A growing number of scientists and activists have argued that we now live in the ‘Anthropocene’ – the geological epoch in which human activity has become a driving force in shaping the Earth’s atmospheric composition and its ecosystems. Although different people locate the inception of this epoch at varying points in history, it is broadly recognised that the past century has seen a rate of change like no other.

Accordingly, the ‘Great Acceleration’ age refers to the exponential rise in a wide range of measurements of human activity over the past few decades: in global population, resource usage, transportation, carbon emissions, pollution and so forth. As such, the scale of the issues we now face have become so large that they exceed our comprehension.

Nevertheless, the latest update to Google Earth’s ‘timelapse’ feature might go some way in helping us visualise the impact of human activity on the world we live in, allowing users to see how anywhere on the planet has changed over the past 37 years.

How Does It Work?

In 1972, NASA and the United States Geological Survey (UCGS) launched the first Landsat satellite to acquire images of the Earth. Unlike previous satellite spacecraft, the intention was not to monitor military sites, but rather observe how the world is changing. Since then, another seven satellites have been launched in the programme, with a nineth set to launch later this year.

In 2013, TIME partnered with Google to release a series of videos showcasing a number of changes around the globe since 1984, using data from Landsat satellites. Google Earth Engine’s ‘Timelapse Project’ was subsequently updated in 2016, combining data from the European Commission’s Copernicus Programme.

Described as the “largest video on the planet”, the project now comprises 24 million images, and has a resolution equivalent to more than half a million 4K videos. This takes up an incredible 20 petabytes (20 million megabytes) of storage space, and allows users to see observe the changes in both 2D and 3D formats.

Of course, processing something this large undoubtedly takes a lot of power – precisely, more than two million hours of computer time, distributed across thousands of powerful machines. Although Google have announced that they are committed to becoming ‘carbon neutral’, this currently depends on investment in carbon offsets.

What Does it Reveal?

As of the latest update, Google Earth offers a number of pre-packaged timelapse tours across the globe, grouped into five categories: ‘Changing Forests’, ‘Fragile Beauty’, ‘Sources of Energy’, ‘Warming Planet’ and ‘Urban Expansion’.

As decades are reduced to seconds, the impact of our rapidly growing population is undeniable: a desert is enveloped by the expanding city of Las Vegas; artificial sand islands grow off the coast of Dubai; green farmland turns to grey pavement in Shanghai.

Of course, larger populations require more resources and energy: coal mines flash across the landscape in Wyoming and Inner Mongolia; the Amazon rainforest is stripped and turned into farmland; the Tar Sands of Alberta branch into the Canadian wilderness as oil extraction continues.

Most alarmingly, the project also shows the immediate effect of our changing climate: the Alaskan Columbia Glacier all but disappears before our eyes; the Aral Sea and Lake Urmia shrink to a tenth of their former size; the white peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro turns to barren land.

Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth Engine and outreach, hopes that the latest update will improve public education on the world we live in:

“The time-lapse distils that enormous archive of satellite data into an easily understandable picture of our changing planet [...] 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.”


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