A Planetary Perspective: Trillions of Pictures of the Earth Available Through Google Earth Engine

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Bomb­ing Remem­bered with Google Earth

Google Presents an Inter­ac­tive Visu­al­iza­tion of 100,000 Stars

Cut­ting-Edge Tech­nol­o­gy Recon­structs the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg 150 Years Lat­er

Kate Rix writes about edu­ca­tion and dig­i­tal media. Vis­it her web­site and fol­low her on Twit­ter

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