Google Earth has unveiled a new ‘Timelapse‘ feature that allows users to ‘travel back in time’ to see how landscapes have evolved in recent decades.
The new feature draws upon millions of satellite images taken since the early 1980s, offering users a tantalising glimpse into the past and an insight into how landscapes have changed.
“In the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, you can now see our planet in an entirely new dimension –-time,” Google said in a blog post.
“With Timelapse in Google Earth, 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years have been compiled into an interactive 4D experience. Now anyone can watch time unfold and witness nearly four decades of planetary change.”
A key focus of Timelapse, Google said, is to raise awareness of climate change and show its impact on a variety of environments and ecosystems around the globe.
Users can embark on interactive tours via the platform, showing them how rapidly Alaskan glaciers have melted in recent years, a side effect of global warming which is contributing to rising sea levels.
In contrast, users can also watch rapid deterioration of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, over the past 40 years the Aral Sea has rapidly shrunk and has all but dried up.
Humanity’s ability to alter landscapes is also a focus of the Timelapse feature. Using the tool, users can view the relentless expansion of cities across the globe, the construction of Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport or explore the development of Dubai’s famous network of artificial islands.
Developing the tool has been no mean feat for Google and its developer teams. According to the tech giant, making a planet-sized time-lapse video required a great deal of “pixel crunching” in Earth Engine, Google’s cloud platform for geospatial analysis.
The millions of images compiled over the past 37 years amounted to 20 petabytes of data and quadrillions of pixels, the tech giant revealed, and processing this was a huge endeavour.
“It took 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 – that’s the equivalent of 530,000 videos in 4K resolution,” Google said.
Google added that the Timelapse project wouldn’t have been possible without support and input from NASA, the US Geological Survey’s Landsat programme and the EU Copernicus initiative.
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Google said it intends to update Google Earth annually to provide regular glimpses into how landscape and ecosystems are changing.
The tech giant called on users to leverage the platform to raise climate change awareness and said it hopes Google Earth can play a key role in sparking debate on the subject.
“Timelapse in Google Earth is about zooming out to assess the health and wellbeing of our only home, and is a tool that can educate and inspire action,” it said in its blog post.
“Visual evidence can cut to the core of the debate in a way that words cannot and communicate complex issues to everyone.”