Google Earth adds more to sea

How do you make Google Earth instantly richer and more absorbing? Just add water. Since its launch in 2006, Google’s 3D geographic exploration program has given only cursory coverage to the world’s oceans while letting users zoom into and fly through satellite imagery of surface terrain. Given that oceans cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface and account for about 97 percent of the biosphere, this struck some folks as a notable lapse, among them National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle, who early on asked Google Earth and Maps Director John Hanke, “When are you going to finish it? You should call Google Earth ‘Google Dirt.’” Soon enough, Earle found herself heading a panel of science advisers helping Google fill the void, and the result — really just the beginning — was introduced today as part of Google Earth 5.0.

Tapping into the new data sets, you can dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench or gambol along the Great Barrier Reef, click through to guided video tours and images of deep sea creatures, or call up content layers showing things like marine life census data, shipwreck sites or surfing hotspots. But it’s not just for tourists — Google is offering it as a platform for scientists to display and share their own data. And there are plenty of gaps to fill in, at least until Google perfects its submersible Street View vehicles — only about 10 percent of the sea floor habitat has been mapped at any useful scale for researchers. Still, it’s the unprecedented public access to the big picture that excites Earle. “The launching of the Ocean in Google Earth has instilled in me a new sense of optimism and hope because it provides, in a stroke, a whole new way of understanding the nature of the world and our place in it,” she said. “Knowing is the key. With knowing comes caring, and with caring there is hope that we can — and will — find an enduring place for ourselves within the mostly blue planet that sustains us.”

The addition of the oceans would be enough to make Earth 5.0 a notable upgrade, but there is more. Among the presenters at the introductory news conference was Google board member Al Gore, using pictures of a receding glacier to show off the new historical imagery feature, which lets you view changes in the landscape over time. There’s also a new extraterrestrial addition — a map of Mars built from the latest high-resolution imagery. And to make it easier for people to use Google Earth to tell stories, there’s now a Touring feature that lets you record a narrated fly-though to share. Definitely worth a download, but do it when you have some free time — once you dive in, you may not resurface for a while.


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  • Scott Erickson

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