We lament about killing the planet and wax poetic about saving it. We talk about making big changes and taking small actions. We warn and caution and threaten that our actions today are ruining the planet for future generations. It hasn’t done much good, but maybe that’s because we’re visual learners, and it’s hard to actually see the impact of our choices.
In just a few seconds, Engine Earth, a new offering from Google, will change that. The tool brings together the world’s satellite imagery — trillions of scientific measurements dating back almost 40 years — and speeds it up. Suddenly, changes that were undetectable before become visible in real time. And it isn’t pretty.
“We started working with the USGS in 2009 to make this historic archive of earth imagery available online,” writes Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager, Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach, on the company’s official blog. “Using Google Earth Engine technology, we sifted through 2,068,467 images—a total of 909 terabytes of data—to find the highest-quality pixels (e.g., those without clouds), for every year since 1984 and for every spot on Earth. We then compiled these into enormous planetary images, 1.78 terapixels each, one for each year.”
Using Landsat images from 1984 until 2012, Google Engine was created as an online with tools for scientists, independent researchers, and nations to detect changes, map trends and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface. But there’s no denying that, even for the layperson, it’s a powerful visual representation of what our rampant consumption and development has done to the planet.
In the time-lapse images, we see glaciers retreat, reservoirs dry up, cities expand out into the ocean, and forests disappear. Such dramatic changes in what is a relatively tiny chunk of time are almost sickening.
At the same time, it’s possible to imagine these images moving in reverse, if only we are willing and able to halt the destruction and move in a different direction. Think of a time lapse of solar panels being installed, or wind turbines being erected. Trees being planted or wetlands being restored. This too is possible, in just as short of a period of time, but only if we’re willing to alter our course and invest in the future.