The effects of climate change and our impact on Earth can be hard to visualize. Thanks to satellite imagery, we've been able to get a better sense of how our actions can affect our planet on a larger scale. For many of us, Google Earth has provided that vantage point of looking at the world in almost real time from outer space. Today, Google is announcing its biggest update to the service since 2017, saying in a blog post that "you can now see our planet in an entirely new dimension — time." It's bringing 3D timelapse videos to Google Earth that anyone can watch and download for free.
You'll find Timelapse by opening Google Earth and clicking on the ship's wheel in the company's Voyager platform. Google also uploaded more than 800 of these videos to a directory for the public to download as MP4s for free. That number includes both 2D and 3D videos, and Google Earth's director of Earth Engine and Outreach Rebecca Moore said she's excited to see how governments, researchers, publishers, educators and advocates will "use Timelapse in Google Earth to shine a light on the issues facing our planet."
Though 2D timelapse videos have existed via Google Earth, these new additions in 3D not only show dimensional scale in some cases but also provide a more immersive experience. You can watch as a glacier retreats over four decades or see the greenery in the Amazon rainforest give way to roads. You can pick your desired location by typing it into the search bar, or if you just want to let Google lead the way, you can go on one of five guided tours. Each of these is themed: forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, sources of energy and "our world's fragile beauty."
The data used to create these Timelapse videos is compiled from "more than 24 million satellite images from 1984 to 2020," Moore wrote. Google worked with NASA, the US Geological Survey the European Space Agency (ESA)'s Copernicus program to use images from their Landsat and Sentinel satellites for the project. And if you're concerned about the energy it took to produce this environmentally minded product resulting in irony here — Moore said the massive amount of computing it took to produce all this content was "done inside our carbon-neutral, 100% renewable energy-matched data centers, which are part of our commitments to help build a carbon-free future."
Moore said "As far as we know, Timelapse in Google Earth is the largest video on the planet, of our planet." While these animations are mesmerizing to simply look at, they could be helpful for educators trying to show students the changes in our world in the last few decades. It could also be an important tool for scientists and regulators who need something visual to strengthen their proposals. Ultimately, while it is exciting to look for potential new homes in space, it's extremely important that we take care of the planet we're on, and getting new ways to understand our impact on the Earth is a huge help.