By John DeFore
Green Right Now
Google has a way of attracting attention, whether it’s by upending cell phone paradigms with an open-source platform or frightening publishers with its quest to digitize every book ever written. Now environmental groups have reason to hope one of the search giant’s projects will raise eco-consciousness among people who spend more time playing with the latest techie fad than they do reading conservationist pamphlets.
The reason is Google Earth, a standalone application that has been much loved by travel enthusiasts and geography buffs for the last few years. The program is a viewer in which satellite photos are augmented with three-dimensional computer renderings of geological formations and man-made buildings. Viewing New York City on Google Earth, for instance, you can not only check out the treescape at Central Park from overhead but tilt toward the horizon and fly by buildings that jut up all around you.
With an update to the software issued this week, though, Google Earth users can glide out over the edge of Manhattan, hover above the Atlantic, and dip below to explore. The project has added huge chunks of data from undersea exploration to its database, and — now that it has worked out a programming limitation that assumed everything worth seeing was above the zero-elevation mark — users can see the wreck of the Titanic, chart debris floating far from land, and observe marine sanctuaries they could never visit in person.
Groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are excited about the development, and in fact have actively participated both in providing data and in encouraging Google to make it available.
NOAA and others are hoping that the easy availability of all these images will help land-lubbers connect with, as the group’s Richard Spinrad puts it, “the myriad issues affecting our ocean.” That could happen through the ease with which organizations can connect their own content to a given location’s Google Earth representation (already, National Geographic and BBC World are among the contributors; the National Snow and Ice Data Center uses it to demonstrate climate change’s effect on glaciers), or it might simply develop as users embrace the vicarious pleasures of undersea exploration, using an interface in which computer-generated waves ripple hypnotically above as you sink lower into millennia -old underwater canyons. (See this page for more on using the new features.)
If swimming through virtual water doesn’t create new environmentalists, though, another new Google Earth feature might: A historical viewing option lets users see time-lapse images that dramatize, say, urban sprawl or the impact of a hurricane. Google’s access to old images only goes back so far, of course, but the years to come are likely to offer enough dramatic changes to scare a Google Earther or two into taking climate change seriously.
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