Seeing is believing: Google Earth Engine and our changing planet

An environmental message that’s hard to ignore


Headlines heralding the the negative effect of human actions on the environment are ubiquitous. Experts, organizations and reports continually warn us of climate change, extinct species and overall impending doom. The articles usually cite evidence–data and research–but without a well-honed ability to understand and make sense of statistics, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp the implications of complex data.

Scientists seem pretty convinced about the the effect humans are having on the planet, but what about the rest of us? Seeing is believing, right?

Enter Google’s Earth Engine.

In May, Google introduced its Earth Engine, which consists of millions of satellite images stitched together to create a time-lapse map of the Earth, which users can zoom in and out of. The images (collected through an ongoing joint mission between the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA) span almost three decades, from 1984 to present, and create compelling visualizations that show how humans have changed Earth.

“We believe this is the most comprehensive picture of our changing planet ever made available to the public,” Rebecca Moore, engineering manager for Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach, wrote on the Google blog. She noted that Google hopes Earth Engine “can inform the global community’s thinking about how we live on our planet and the policies that will guide us in the future.”

Earth Engine shows, among other things, Lake Urmia in Iran drying up, the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil and (below) the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska.

Taking a look closer to home, the time lapse images reveal clear-cut logging in British Columbia and the expansion of Mildred Lake oil sands mine in Alberta (below).

While it may be easier to ignore written reports, the visual data in Google’s Earth Engine paints a stark picture, allowing us to see with our own eyes the sometimes destructive actions we have on our planet.

Have you found something worth a second look on Earth Engine? Share in the comments!


Seeing is believing: Google Earth Engine and our changing planet

  1. Oh I’m sure deniers won’t believe their lying eyes. It might harm their wallets you know.

  2. How about showing how much cities have grown over the last 30 years? Would make all of the above seem like peanuts. But then people might realize that the only way to stop changing the environment will be to stop the growth of humanity.

    • LOL no.

    • Good point. On the site for Google’s Earth Engine, they feature a time lapse for Las Vegas, but you can check any location (apparently – I checked on several places including the small town where I went to high school, and they are all there). The growth of cities is the driver for resource usage.

      • It should be remembered too that habitation and farming are by far the two most devastating forces acting to destroy existing ecosystems.

        Resource extraction is trivial by comparison.

        • Yeah. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to go without oil than food for any length of time.

  3. B’gawd….deniers have now gone from a) it isn’t happening to b) it’s happening but man had nothing to do with it to c) it’s cities…no it’s farms….no it’s cities….no it’s…..

    And I left out all the craziness inbetween….like sunspots, God’s will, ‘natural cycles’, aliens etc


  4. The map of the oil sands is misleading. That is not just one mine, but five of the mines: Syncrude Base main, Syncrude North Mine, Suncor Base Mine, Suncor Millennium Mine and Suncor Steepbank Mine. That’s more half of the mining activity in the region, not just one! So the footprint is much smaller than you are led to believe.

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