Google has released the “biggest update since 2017” to Google Earth with a new 3D time-lapse feature. Entering Google Earth’s new “Timelapse” mode, you can fly a time slider over the virtual globe, showing satellite images from the past 37 years. Google Earth Timelapse has been around for years as part of Google Earth Engine (which is a totally separate interface from Google Earth; it’s a weird Google branding thing), but it was previously only available in 2D. Now Google has mapped all this data onto the Google Earth 3D globe, where you can see cities being built, forests being cleared and glaciers retreating.
Google Earth Timelapse is not just a huge amount of data; mapping correctly around the world means correcting the images for artifacts and problems. The company needed to get rid of clouds, correct images for perspective and ensure seamless transitions through zoom levels. Luckily, Google has some really big computers to handle the load.
The company explains what it took to make Timelapse possible:
Making a planet-sized time-lapse video required a significant amount of what we call “pixel crunching” in Earth Engine, Google’s cloud platform for geospatial analysis. To add animated Timelapse images to Google Earth, we collected more than 24 million satellite images from 1984 to 2020, representing quadrillions of pixels. It took over two million processing hours on thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel video mosaic – that’s the equivalent of 530,000 videos in 4K resolution!
To access the timeline, open Google Earth on the web, click on the navigation vessel wheel icon and press the large “Timelapse in Google Earth” button, or simply go to g.co/timelapse. With Timelapse open, you get a large panel on the right with a timeline from 1984 to today, and a few shortcuts to places that Google believes are particularly interesting. Google Earth Timelapse is not working well all over the world yet. Some places, like New York City, seem hopelessly blurry, even if you set the timer to 2020. Google’s highlighted locations like Dubai look a lot better and play like a game SimCity†
In addition to offering a fun new feature in Google Earth, Google is promoting Timelapse as a climate change learning tool. If you want this information in a more portable format than Google Earth, Google has produced a large series of Earth time-lapse videos that focus on “urban sprawl, mining effects, river meandering, megacities growth, deforestation, and agricultural expansion.” The videos are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, so you’re free to use them for whatever you want as long as you give Google a name.
As with New York City, there are a few holes in Google’s data right now. Objects such as 3D buildings do not appear in Time Lapse mode, nor do the geometry of the Earth appear to be changing. However, this 3D time-lapse feature is a platform for the future, and Google says it will “update Google Earth annually with new Time-lapse images for the next decade.”
Listing image by Google