Google Earth’s historical 3D time lapses show the ravages of climate change


Google Earth is getting a new 3D time-lapse feature that lets you observe how Earth has changed from 1984 to 2020, allowing you to see just how much the devastating effects of climate change have already shaped the geography of the planet.

“It’s best for a landscape view of our world,” Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, Google Earth Engine, and Google Earth Outreach, said in a call with reporters this week. “It’s not about zooming in. It’s about zooming out. It’s about taking the big step back. We need to see how our only home is doing.”

The feature (which Google calls “Timelapse,” one word) will be available in Google Earth starting Thursday. To access it, launch Google Earth and then click or tap on the Voyager tab (which has an icon that looks like a ship’s wheel). You can search for a place of interest or check out one of Google’s five “guided tours” about forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, mining and renewable energy sources, and “the Earth’s fragile beauty.”

To get an idea of what the feature lets you see, check out this time lapse GIF of the changing shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from Google:


Or this GIF of the Columbia Glacier’s retreat:


To create the 3D time-lapse imagery for Google Earth, the company says it used more than 24 million satellite images taken from 1984 to 2020 to create one 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic. (To give you a sense of the scale there, one terapixel is 1 million megapixels.) The company worked with NASA, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the European Commission, and the European Space Agency (ESA) to collect the data used in the time lapses.

“Timelapse and Google Earth sits at the nexus of science, technology, public-private partnerships, and the next generation as we think about both climate change and climate action,” Moore said.

This isn’t the Google Earth team’s first time-lapse feature. In May 2013, the team released a time-lapse feature displaying 2D images of Earth from 1984 to 2012, and it made a big update to that in November 2016. The feature announced Thursday, however, offers a 3D time lapse of the Earth’s geological changes, allowing you to look at the changes in the Earth in more detail.

Google has also released 800 time-lapse videos of different areas around the planet as free downloads. The company aims for them to be used by teachers, nonprofits, policymakers, and others to show how the geography of Earth has changed over time.



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