Seeing is believing: Google Earth Engine and our changing planet

An environmental message that's hard to ignore

Headlines heralding the the negative effect of human actions on the environment are ubiquitous. Experts, organizations and reports continually warn us of climate change, extinct species and overall impending doom. The articles usually cite evidence–data and research–but without a well-honed ability to understand and make sense of statistics, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp the implications of complex data.

Scientists seem pretty convinced about the the effect humans are having on the planet, but what about the rest of us? Seeing is believing, right?

Enter Google’s Earth Engine.

In May, Google introduced its Earth Engine, which consists of millions of satellite images stitched together to create a time-lapse map of the Earth, which users can zoom in and out of. The images (collected through an ongoing joint mission between the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA) span almost three decades, from 1984 to present, and create compelling visualizations that show how humans have changed Earth.

“We believe this is the most comprehensive picture of our changing planet ever made available to the public,” Rebecca Moore, engineering manager for Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach, wrote on the Google blog. She noted that Google hopes Earth Engine “can inform the global community’s thinking about how we live on our planet and the policies that will guide us in the future.”

Earth Engine shows, among other things, Lake Urmia in Iran drying up, the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil and (below) the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska.

Taking a look closer to home, the time lapse images reveal clear-cut logging in British Columbia and the expansion of Mildred Lake oil sands mine in Alberta (below).

While it may be easier to ignore written reports, the visual data in Google’s Earth Engine paints a stark picture, allowing us to see with our own eyes the sometimes destructive actions we have on our planet.

Have you found something worth a second look on Earth Engine? Share in the comments!

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.