In 1972 the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, or Landsat, launched into space with a mission to circle the planet every 16 days and take pictures of the Earth. For more than forty years, the Landsat program has created the longest ever continuous record of Earth’s surface.
Now those images are available to everyone. And thanks to Google Earth Engine, it’s possible to download and analyze them.
Five years ago NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey rewrote their protocols and made the images available for free, trillions of them, a ridiculously massive collection of pictures taken from more than 400 miles away, some of them unrecognizable.
Is that green patch in the Amazon basin a forest or a pasture?
But with a little help from Google’s cloud, this data has amazing power. It used to be that only a big institution, like a university or a country, had the processing power to download the data. With a single CPU it would take months to suck down the images. Now, it only takes a few hours. With that freedom, small environmental watchdog agencies and monitoring groups have access to the same data that the big guys have had for years. All they need to do is write the algorithms to help interpret what they’re seeing.
And best of all, we can all see the results.
Watch Las Vegas grow from a dusty casino town into suburban sprawl.
See the Palm Islands bloom into being off the coast of Dubai between 1984 and 2012.
One of the most devastating is to watch the herringbone of roads develop in the Amazon over just 28 years.
Download GoogleEarth’s free plugin to view precomputed datasets, like this one rendering the few remaining places on the Earth that are more than a kilometer from the nearest road.