Google Earth goes undersea

Before now, the Google Earth application had a serious limitation; it was unable to support negative elevations. Even on land, you couldn’t go below sea level, let along descend to the depths of the ocean. This sounds like a minor feature, but it precluded using Google Earth for working in the sea. This has all changed in a major upgrade announced at the beautiful new California Academy of Sciences facility in San Francisco. Google engineers, led by project manager Steve Miller, have added this capability to “go below” and quite a bit more.

In addition to being able to place markers and content below the sea surface, Google Earth has added bathymetry and a simulated ocean surface, opening up the ability to use the tool to present marine-related information in the proper context.

Within this new environment, scientists and conservationists from around the world have created an initial set of interest-points, linking nearly 1000 video and images of organisms, activities, and researchers from pole to pole and from sea shore to the deepest ocean trenches. The features are organized in 12 focus regions:

Global Oceans
Great Barrier Reef
Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean
Hawaiian Islands
Monterey Bay, California
Patagonian Shelf
Western Indian Ocean

Charlotte Vick coordinated the information-gathering efforts for the Explore the Ocean layers of supplemental information. She describes some of the other layers of information:

National Geographic layer with quizzes to test your ocean knowledge

– BBC Earth with impressive video content

– Archival Cousteau footage showing his early expeditions

– Shipwrecks, surf reports, and ocean expeditions

– Tracks of large pelagic animals recorded by satellite tags.

– An ARKive layer focusing on endangered organisms

– Marie Tharp Historical Map showing past ocean data and impressions

– State of the Ocean showing excerpts from the recent Ocean Atlas

– Realtime animated global sea-surface temperature

Another significant new addition related to ocean research is a time line feature, so that archived and historical aerial and satellite images can be shown for a particular region. Al Gore demonstrated this feature showing a succession of images from Glacier National Park.

All of these data are stored in Google’s readily accessible KML format, so simple scripts or more sophisticated tools developed with their libkml tools available online can generate content viewable using Google Earth as a “browser”.

Google engineers have added the ability to record a fly-through, complete with audio track. At the launch event, this was demonstrated by Jimmy Buffett, who showed the locations of his upcoming Hawaii tour dates with a musical backdrop.

The new version has rich content which promises to grow, but perhaps even more importantly, it is a powerful tool which brings global visualization software into the hands of scientists everywhere. A few irregularities remain: the surprising inability to search the content within layers, and an inability to replace the animated surface layer with actual satellite views of the ocean surface. (How else to spot that elusive “sea of plastic” in the central Pacific gyre or a pirate ship off the Somali coast?)

Another major new feature is the ability to explore Mars, viewing panoramas from the Mars rovers as though they had been generated by the fleet of Google Street View SUVs.

In all it is a refreshing and welcome act of philanthropy for a company to create such a powerful and free way of learning about the planet and the ocean. Check it out at

February 3, 2009

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