How Google Earth Illustrates Climate Change

A picture is worth a thousand words

Key Takeaways

  • Google Earth’s time-lapse photos take a look at how climate change has affected the Earth over almost four decades. 
  • The time-lapse photos show drastic changes in the Earth’s landscapes, while also noting the potential for improvement with certain conservation efforts. 
  • Experts say this photo evidence of climate change is a more accessible way for people to understand the planet’s issues.
A satellite with the Earth in the background.

koto_feja / Getty Images

Google Earth is letting you see how climate change is affecting the planet with new interactive time-lapse photos

Just in time for Earth Day, the time-lapse photos give a glimpse into the extreme changes in the environment over almost four decades. Experts hope that the images will impact people by showing them first-hand the real challenges the planet faces if humans collectively continue on this path. 

"[This project] has the power to shape a public understanding of what’s at stake when we’re talking about climate change," Dr. Zeke Baker, an assistant professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, told Lifewire over the phone. 

"It’s an impressive project that likely only a technology company like Google could pull off."

The Science Side 

The project is a collaborative partnership between Google and the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. The time-lapse sequence consists of 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years compiled into an interactive 4D experience. 

A desert floor, dry and cracked open. (Clark Dry Lake, Anza Borrego Desert State Park California, USA)

Alan Majchrowicz / Getty Images

Google said the changing photos revealed five themes of climate change: forest change, urban growth, warming temperatures, sources of energy, and the world’s natural beauty. Google Earth lets you further explore these themes with specific photo examples and a guided tour on each topic to better understand its impact. 

Baker said that while the photos are impressive, the way in which Google presents them helps connect people to real climate-change issues. 

"Their framing around it is great, as far as they're not just putting it out there. They’re connecting it to the issues of climate change through coordinating it into different topical areas, while also emphasizing the ways in which you can see how things could have been otherwise," Baker said. 

Baker said you clearly can see the difference in photos where there have been conservation efforts, compared to areas where there have not.

Even though the photos end in 2021, Baker said it’s easy to assume what kind of grim future lies ahead for our planet. 

"What is different about this kind of data is that it’s... much more accessible to people, and it doesn't have to rely on physics or science at all."

"Oftentimes, we hear we have 12 years to change the energy system, or that by 2030 we may face a climate change tipping point," he said. "That kind of framing of the future can be difficult for people to grapple with, whereas if you're looking at imagery, it’s easier to see that trajectory." 

Making Evidence Accessible 

Despite evidence like this project, there is still an ongoing debate around climate change and information related to it. 

"All kinds of filters—politics, education, media consumption—go into how people digest and interpret climate information, and how they respond to media attention that connects extreme events to climate change," Baker said. 

The kind of climate-change evidence the public usually gets is through news articles or statistics. Still, Baker said photographic evidence like Google Earth’s could be more successful in really showing what’s happening. 

"What is different about this kind of data is that it’s not the same as climate science data, which is really hard to present to a public audience," he said. "It’s much more accessible to people, and it doesn't have to rely on physics or science at all." 

Cody Nehiba, an assistant professor of research at Louisiana State University's Center for Energy Studies, added that these photos could significantly impact people who view them, particularly if they’ve actually been to those places. 

"Seeing the effects of climate change where you live or in places you have visited can make these impacts feel more personal," Nehiba wrote in an email to Lifewire. 

"Hopefully, this personal connection can help nudge individuals (and firms) into internalizing some of the pollution costs they impose on society and make changes to reduce their impacts on the planet."

Overall, Google Earth's photos make something that can sometimes seem too vast of an issue very real, and something we have to face head-on. 

"The issue of climate change in the public eye and in science has always been a matter of representation and how you define and represent this thing that we call climate change," Baker said. 

"This [project] gives us a new representation of how we are interacting with the environment around us."

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