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Google Earth Plumbs the Ocean Depths

The software now lets users dive miles beneath the ocean waves.

When Google Earth was introduced in 2005, it showed how fun digital mapping could be, allowing users to zoom over the planet’s continents and explore their most spectacular features. However, 70 percent of the planet’s surface–the proportion that is covered by ocean–has always remained off limits to Google Earth users.

Deep-sea diving: This screenshot of Google Earth 5.0 shows a number of icons along the coast of northern California. Clicking on the shark icon out at sea brings up a video of a shark that has been tagged, as well as tracking data.

In an announcement today at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, Google has rectified the situation. The latest version of the company’s mapping software, Google Earth 5.0, lets users dive deep below the surface of the sea to view ocean-floor topography. Furthermore, they can click on icons that describe aquatic ecosystems and watch, for example, videos of killer whales eating seals. “We have extended the map of the world to include the ocean parts of the world, as well as the land parts,” said John Henke, Google lead for the project, in today’s announcement.

Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), played an integral role in adding ocean data to Google Earth. She and Henke met at an event in 2006 where she raved about Google Earth but noted that it should really be called “Google Dirt” because it ignored the part of the planet covered by water. Since then, the pair has worked to add ocean data to the platform.

At today’s event, Earle demonstrated a number of new Google Earth features. A user can, for instance, view the migration patterns of the great white shark and see the sort of underwater terrain that the shark sees on its long journey. Earle also showed how the different ocean surface temperatures can be tracked. “You can track the importance of temperature in how El Niño and La Niña form,” she said today.

The ocean data added to Google Earth includes more than 50,000 separate measurements, such as the elevation of underwater terrain and more than 20,000 extra pieces of information, including videos, pictures, and text excerpts, said Henke. This information can be added to the virtual map using a taskbar in the software.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, says that the software is more than just a fun visual demonstration. With all the information that it provides, “it’s a platform for science and research,” he says, “and literally understanding the future of the earth.”

Then and now: This image compares two satellite shots of the same location in Thompsonville, MA. The low-resolution, black-and-white image was taken in 1995, before a housing development had been built on the central hill. The second picture, in color and with a higher resolution, was taken in 2008.

Former U.S. vice president Al Gore spoke at Monday’s press event about Google Earth’s potential as a conservation tool. Gore demonstrated another feature in Google Earth 5.0 that lets people access historical satellite imagery of certain locations. He spotlighted the famously retreating Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, in Montana. Gore also said that Google Earth is an “important shift” in the way that people view information, allowing the average person to see how geographic locations have been impacted by climate change.

Other new features include Google Mars, which lets users fly over Martian terrain and explore landmarks such as Olympus Mons, the solar system’s largest known volcano. Additionally, Google Earth users can now create virtual tours, providing flyover views of locations with narration, videos, pictures, and text. And all Google Earth users can now upload coordinates from GPS devices to visualize a road trip or bicycle ride, for example. This feature was previously only available in the Plus and Pro versions of the software.

Since being released in June of 2005, Google Earth has been downloaded more than half a billion times. The software was originally called Earth Viewer and was created by Keyhole, a mapping company that Google acquired in 2004.

The engineers, scientists, and conservationists who worked on the latest version of the software hope that the new view of the ocean provided by Google Earth will educate people, inspire further research, and motivate conservation. So many natural resources have been lost already, says Terry Garcia, executive vice president for mission programs at National Geographic, which was involved in the Google Earth effort. “This new platform is going to allow us to show people exactly what is happening to the earth, and help us engage them, so we can start to recover some of our losses,” he says.

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