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On the Web: Spinning around the globe online

Holiday On the Shelf

Spinning around the globe online

From an astronaut’s point of view, Earth looks like a marble from space, but on closer inspection, the seemingly empty planet becomes a well-populated and interconnected globe. The same is true for Google Earth, the search engine company’s 3-D representation of the planet that is dynamic, interactive and fully searchable.

Google Earth hands viewers the world — and the ability to map their own interests across the world, from finding wireless Internet services in Seattle to touring the Grand Canyon or National Geographic articles in Africa. Images courtesy of Google Earth.

Flying around Google Earth is “like being in an airplane,” says Randy Sargent, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, based in Mountain View, Calif. But unlike being in an airplane, Sargent says, you can zoom down in the midst of your flight to explore what interests you. If Google Earth catches on like Google’s search engine did, the initial wow factor of those “flights” may quickly be replaced by Google Earth’s usefulness to a wide range of users.

Started in 2001 by a company called Keyhole, which was acquired by Google in 2003, the program incorporates 2-D imagery into a 3-D representation. Its framework consists of LANDSAT data, at the low resolution of 15 meters. Google has purchased or acquired other satellite data, including aerial photos from U.S. Geological Survey airplane surveys and from private satellite imaging companies, such as DigitalGlobe, which operates QuickBird, a satellite that obtains 0.07-meter-resolution data.

Viewers smoothly transition through image layers as they zoom in, all while the program streams the data from a server, either from Google or from whomever makes their data available. The original database from Google contains more than 10,000 gigabytes of data, and outside users continue to add more. Many spots on the globe lack higher resolution images, but few lack any images at all.

Global Connection, one of the many contributors currently populating Google Earth with data points, originated from the “blue sky notion” of giving people an astronaut’s experience of a connected Earth, says Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics specialist at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, and a co-principal investigator with Sargent of Global Connection. Working with the National Geographic Society and Google, Global Connection created an algorithm that quickly mapped the locations in all of the magazine articles in National Geographic’s online databases onto Google Earth.

Global Connection also mapped explorer Michael Fay’s transits of Africa, pinpointing the sites of photographs taken from his biplane more than 100 meters up, which were logged with Global Positioning Satellite coordinates. Fay, who is sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, published the photos through the National Geographic Society; they are some of the highest resolution aerial images on Google Earth, including clear shots of animals such as wildebeest. Each site is marked in Google Earth with a tiny red biplane or a golden frame reminiscent of National Geographic’s cover, and small popup windows are linked to the pertinent article online.

But the team’s work did not stop there: Their newly created algorithms allowed the immediate mapping of images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), showing the devastation of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. Residents could see their houses from afar, using Google Earth, as NOAA streamed current aerial digital photographs to Google for posting — even as phone service and computers were down in New Orleans and other communities in the hurricane’s path. Some Google Earth images of New Orleans even appeared in presentations about Hurricane Katrina at this year’s annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The United Nations also used Google Earth to publish aerial images taken immediately after the magnitude-7.6 earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people in Kashmir in October (see stories, this issue). Initially, Pakistan protested the publication of the high-resolution imagery, which was temporarily removed until the United Nations decided to repost the images for the use of rescuers and others.

Such protests are not new. Since Google Earth’s launch on June 28, legislators and commentators in the Netherlands and India also have questioned whether posting such images would compromise the safety of critical national sites. The data were, however, publicly available elsewhere prior to the program, according to Google.

Concerns over balancing the availability of data for rescue versus maintaining security is a “standard collision” of people’s need for information, Nourbakhsh says. “Our philosophy is to make much more available than just spatial data,” and adding “cultural” data makes Google Earth “much more than viewing the terrain.”

The added value from the Google Earth user community seems to have exploded since the program’s release. Any user can take the application’s Keyhole Markup Language (KML) and create layers easily accessible to others. KML files can be downloaded directly through Web pages, using HTML or XML (the languages of Internet browser applications). One independent computer programmer is writing a global information system (GIS) “bridge” called Arc2Earth, for translating data from ArcView, a leading GIS application, to KML.

How Google Earth grows is “out of our hands,” says John Hanke, Keyhole’s founder and now the director of product management for Google, based in Mountain View, Calif. Although finding “some of these cool things people are doing” can be difficult, he says, “hopefully it will get more organized. At the same time, there’s a free ecology of people creating these layers.” If Google attempted to organize it from the outside, he says, that “would kill a lot of the innovation and creativity.”

For guidance, many blogs have popped up online, documenting the multitude of ways users have adopted Google Earth. City maps online become guides to museums and food, and even places to stay. A researcher at the California Academy of Sciences has used Google Earth to map locations of all the species of ants in the world ( And an Italian computer scientist created after using Google Earth to find anomalous aerial imagery that could be archeological sites.

Hanke also notes that advanced versions of Google Earth, currently free at its most basic level, have been sold to oil and gas companies that use the program to track operations, and emergency responders have found the program useful internally — locked or unlocked from outside viewers’ eyes.

One limitation to using Google Earth may be bandwidth capacity, Nourbakhsh says. Although recent developments allow real-time streaming of movies and other large data files, Google Earth is starting to push up against bandwidth limits, particularly with very high-resolution imagery now available (and higher resolutions will come in the future). He says that addressing that problem could lead to advances in algorithms, on the order of those that occurred two decades ago, when Internet bandwidth first became a concern.

Now that Web surfers can see the world from their computer screens, Google is also taking them to the moon: A tour of lunar landing sites became available on Google Moon ( on July 20, in honor of the first manned moon landing on that date in 1969.

Although it remains to be seen how the application will transform geographic information and mapping, Google Earth has the potential to make such information so accessible that nonprofessionals are bound to change the field, some observers say. Although no good studies have yet confirmed the value of 3-D over 2-D information, Nourbakhsh says, it provides a “different organization of data” for a new way of learning. “It’s a real hook, a different way of exploring the world than exploring a flat Web page.”

Naomi Lubick


"A Year of Living Dangerously," Geotimes, December 2005.
"Quake sets off landslides in Kashmir," Geotimes, December 2005. Print exclusive
Google Earth
Google Moon

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Holiday On the Shelf

In what has become an annual tradition, Geotimes has scoured its shelves for books left unreviewed from the previous year. This edition includes a diverse set of reads on natural history, local geology and a couple of books for kids. Hopefully, you’ll find something that piques your interest as a holiday gift for a friend or family member, or just something fun for your own winter reading.

Natural history

The Raging Sea: The Powerful Account of the Worst Tsunami in U.S. History, by Dennis M. Powers. Citadel Press, 2005. ISBN 0 8065 2682 3. Softcover, $15.95.

In the blink of an eye, scenic Crescent City, Calif., was half destroyed by a tsunami that was generated by a giant earthquake thousands of kilometers away in Alaska. This account of the disaster not only records the events of that day in 1964, but also the lives of the victims and the people who became heroes. Everyone, especially those in disaster-prone regions, will be able to relate to this story of a city swamped by waves and reduced to ashes, and how it rose back up like a fiery phoenix.

Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz and the Meaning of Coral, by David Dobbs. Pantheon Books, 2005. ISBN 0 3754 2161 0. Hardcover, $25.00.

Once referred to as natural philosophy, “science” was not even a term used by Charles Darwin or Louis Agassiz. Locked in a debate between the observable phenomena that Darwin termed “natural selection” and Agassiz’s belief that life on Earth was originally created as we see it today, these two men changed the very concept of scientific thought during the 19th century. Agassiz’s son Alexander, although he agreed with natural selection, also became mired in a debate with Darwin over the origins of coral. To disprove Darwin, he traveled the seas and set the stage for modern oceanography. Anyone with an interest in the history of science will find this an enlightening look at the development of modern paleontology and oceanography.

Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, by Robert M. Hazen. Joseph Henry Press, 2005. ISBN 0 3090 9432 1. Hardcover, $27.95.

Amid the controversy over evolution and creationism, astrobiologist Robert M. Hazen takes readers through the first steps of life’s emergence, starting from the Big Bang up to the synthesis of carbon biomolecules on the surface of Earth, in an attempt to explain the scientific quest to understand life’s origins. Hazen’s ideas on the theory of emergence — in which life began 4 billion years ago, obeying all the rules of physics and chemistry — is a journey through the modern world’s scientific advancements and perplexing questions. Because the book is a bit heavy at times in chemistry and biology, it will be most interesting to a reader with some science background.

Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, by Marcia Bjornerud. Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0 8133 4249 X. Hardcover, $26.00.

Marcia Bjornerud tries to convey the beauty and wonder of Earth and all of the mysteries scientists attempt to unravel in her book Reading the Rocks. Bjornerud uses metaphors and anecdotes to discuss Earth’s deep history and explains the delicate balancing act that has sustained life for millions of years, but not without warning that human activities may upset that balance. The book includes a glossary and geologic timescale for reference.

Local field guides

Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England’s Stone Walls, by Robert M. Thorson. Walker & Company, 2005. ISBN 0 8027 7708 2. Softcover, $14.00.

Geologist Robert M. Thorson takes readers on a journey through New England’s stone walls, while painting a vivid historical and geological picture of the American northeast. Through Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and other states, Thorson passes on the stories that each stone wall has to tell. This readable guide comes complete with lessons on how to identify a wall’s age, history and purpose. It is an intriguing story of humankind’s labors to build strong fences.

The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes From Seattle, by David B. Williams. Westwinds Press, 2005. ISBN 1 5586 8859 5. Softcover, $14.95.

Amid the bustling city streets, David Williams, a native Seattle resident (and occasional freelance writer for Geotimes), discovers the wild, natural side of urban life. From a tiny city park to buildings composed of quarried rocks, Williams takes us to a side of Seattle rarely seen. With hand-drawn maps and personal anecdotes of Williams’ life in Washington state, The Street-Smart Naturalist introduces the reader to the geology, the eagles, the plants and even the bugs of greater Seattle. You do not have to be a geoscientist to enjoy his rambling walks through the city.

The Geology of Southern Vancouver Island, by Chris Yorath. Harbour Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1 5501 7362 6. Softcover, $24.95.

From volcanic cliffs to the remains of ancient landslides, Chris Yorath takes readers for a geology tour of Southern Vancouver Island in western Canada. He follows millions of years of natural processes that formed the unique landscape of this island, including plate tectonics, geomorphology and glaciology. Yorath follows a path through Cowichan Valley to the Nanoose Peninsula, and even to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, making this a useful field guide for the region.

High Plains of Northeastern New Mexico: A Guide to Geology and Culture, by William R. Muehlberger, Sally J. Muehlberger and L. Greer Price. New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, 2005. ISBN 1 8839 0520 6. Softcover, $14.95.

With more than 100 photos, maps and illustrations, High Plains is a virtual tour of northeastern New Mexico. This field guide, complete with field-trip stops, offers a view of the geologic landscape, such as Malpie Mountain volcano and the canyon of the dry Cimarron River, and gives the reader a sense of the cultural history of the region with a stop at the Folsom Man site and the Santa Fe Trail. Everyone can enjoy the grandeur and beauty of the sites described in this guidebook, but a caveat: The entirety of the book must be read to understand the authors’ references to particular named groups of outcrops.

Crater Lake — Gem of the Cascades: The Geological Story of Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, by K.R. Cranson. KRC Press, 2005. Softcover, $15.95.

Crater Lake’s majestic deep blue waters, which sit in a 10-kilometer-wide caldera enshrouded by tree-lined cliffs, have inspired native stories about the lake’s formation 7,000 years ago. In his third edition of Crater Lake, K.R. Cranson, a trained petroleum geologist who was an interpretive ranger at Crater Lake National Park for seven seasons, has set out to describe in more detail the geologic formation of the volcanic lake, which occurred after the collapse of Mount Mazama. The book, intended for park visitors, teachers and geologists, has some helpful features, such as a glossary, blank pages for notetaking and color plates of photos from the region.


Fun With GPS, by Donald Cooke. ESRI Press, 2005. ISBN 1 5894 8087 2. Softcover, $19.95.

What is Global Positioning System (GPS)? How does it work? How do you use it? These are some of the many questions that Cooke answers in this detailed and colorful book for kids. Starting with the basics of finding a location through latitude and longitude, Cooke explains with real-life examples and hundreds of pictures how GPS can be used for mapping, animal tracking, biking and skiing, and even land conservation. Filled with fun activities and experiments to try, and kid can find something interesting to do using GPS.

Adventure on Dolphin Island, by Ellen Prager. iUniverse Inc., 2005. ISBN 0 5953 5791 1. Softcover, $14.95.

Ellen Prager, a marine geologist, has ventured into children’s fiction with Adventure on Dolphin Island. When heroine Kelly Wickmer is suddenly tossed from her parents’ rented sailboat, she finds herself floating helplessly in the ocean. Alone and scared, she is befriended by a dolphin who carries her to a fantastic, mysterious island. Folding science into this fictional adventure story, Prager introduces oceanography and marine biology to kids through Kelly’s story of being stuck on a tropical island and finally making the journey home.

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