Google Earth’s New 3D Time-Lapse Feature Shows How Humans Are Affecting the Planet

Google Earth’s New 3D Time-Lapse Feature Shows How Humans Are Affecting the Planet
Image: Google

Google Earth is already a powerful tool for observing our planet, but today it’s getting a major upgrade with the introduction of a new 3D time-lapse feature.

Described by Google Earth director Rebecca Moore as the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, Timelapse in Google Earth combines more than 24 million satellite photos, two petabytes of data, and 2 million hours of CPU processing time to create a 4.4-terapixel interactive view showing how the Earth has changed from 1984 to 2020.

While Google Earth did have a simplistic time-lapse option before, the new feature represents a major upgrade with full 3D coverage of the entire globe. Users can pick practically any place on the Earth, change camera angles, and select a specific year they want to see.

You can access Timelapse in Google Earth simply by going to g.co/Timelapse or hitting the Ship’s Wheel icon in Google Earth and selecting Timelapse, with Google also providing more than 200 spotlights and guided tours for specific locations like Las Vegas, Kuwait City, and the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. And if that’s not enough, Google has uploaded more than 800 additional time-lapse videos meant for public use here, which can also be downloaded for free or viewed on YouTube.

Here's a gif showing the creation of the World Islands in Dubai. (Gif: Google) Here’s a gif showing the creation of the World Islands in Dubai. (Gif: Google)

Google’s goal is to create a powerful and interactive way of seeing our world change over time so people will have a closer understanding of the kind of impact humans and natural phenomena have on our planet. After all, it’s one thing to hear about the rainforest shrinking or glaciers melting, but it’s a completely different things to see it play out in front of your eyes.

The photos used in Google Earth’s new time-lapse feature come courtesy of NASA and the USGS’s Landsat program and the European Union’s Copernicus initiative, whose three satellites (Landsat-8, Sentinel 2a, and Sentinel 2b) allow Google to get a newly updated image of the world around every 2.5 days.

Photo: Sam Rutherford Photo: Sam Rutherford

However, while the U.S. and the E.U.’s satellites are some of the most sophisticated in the world, there are some limits to Timelapse in Google Earth, specifically when it comes to finer details. Instead of being like Street View in Google Maps, Timelapse in Google Earth was designed to show landscape level changes that make it easier to track changes on a grander scale over time instead of more granular things like the construction of a single new road or home.

To create the models and composite images seen in Google Earth, Google teamed up with Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab to engineer the algorithms powering its new time-lapse feature.

Here's another clip showing the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska throughout the years.  (Gif: Google) Here’s another clip showing the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska throughout the years. (Gif: Google)

Going forward, Google says it hopes to update Timelapse in Google Earth once a year (or more frequently if possible). And if Google Earth’s new time-lapse feature can’t convince people that climate change is real and that humans are having a massive impact on the environment, I’m not sure what will.