Google Unveils 37 Year Time-lapse of Earth’s Surface

Our Daily Planet

Last week, in time for Earth Day, Google unveiled Google Earth Timelapse, allowing users to see zoomable videos documenting how the Earth has changed since 1984. Through the eyes of a satellite, users can view sobering and sometimes alarming trends of deforestation, sea-level rise, sea desiccation, and urban sprawl. Developers hope that this program, a product of 37 years of documentation, can help people see and believe in climate change and fight back.

Google: Exploring Timelapse in Google Earth, April 15, 2021.

Why This Matters

The world is fast approaching its deadline to stop global temperature rise and prevent total climate catastrophe. But in the US, the world's second-largest emissions producer, some politicians are still fighting the climate efforts to control emissions. A recent Gallup poll found that Republicans and Democrats are more divided than ever on climate change. In the wake of COVID-19, many have put their environmental priorities on the backburner. Experts say this tool could help re-invigorate support for environmental causes, using visual storytelling to show people that the natural world is facing a pandemic all its own. It's even more "proof" we need to adhere to the Paris Accord and conserve 30% of the planet by 2030.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

The Google Earth Engine combined over 24 million satellite images to create the cloud-free time lapse. Google worked with the US Geological Survey, NASA, and the EU's Copernicus Program to gather data, and with Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab to process and display the images. "More than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic," said Google in a statement. In keeping with Google's emissions goals, the computing was powered by data centers using 100% renewable energy.

The Earth Engine tool is available on desktop and mobile, increasing access to these visual stories. It showcases notable lapses worldwide, including the melting of Alaskan glaciers, the drying of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and massive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Americans may note drought quickly moving in on the Midwest, and Louisianans can see the state's coastline rapidly recede. But in addition to showing the public a new perspective, the tool may provide experts with valuable data on large climate systems.

Scientists used a previous version of the time-lapse tool to show that melting permafrost in the Arctic was responsible for increasing summertime landslides on a Canadian Arctic island. Measuring receding permafrost is crucial to fighting climate change because as permafrost melts, it releases the potent GHG methane into the atmosphere. The tool is also handy for measuring sea level rise, especially in coastal communities prone to hurricanes and flooding. But more optimistically, it could also become a good tool for visualizing the progress the world makes if it stays on track to meet Paris Agreement targets.

To Go Deeper

Watch all the time-lapse sequences here. It's worth your time. You will be shocked but not surprised.


Copyright © 2021 Our Daily Planet. Reprinted here with permission. This version may have been edited from the original article published on April 19, 2021.