If you use Google Earth to look at Dubai from the air, you can now watch how the city has sprawled into the desert—and artificial islands have appeared off the coast—since the 1980s. If you visit Claushavn, Greenland, you can see glaciers shrink over the same time period. In Bolivia, you can watch the rainforest disappear. Instead of only offering a three-dimensional view of a place at a static position in time, the platform now also shows decades of change.
“Essentially, we’re creating this 4D experience of our changing planet over the last 37 years,” says Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth. The immersive experience—an enormous, 4.4-terapixel-sized video, called Timelapse—was built from 24 million satellite images from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the European Commission, and the European Space Agency.
Watching cities grow or forests shrink helps make the scale of transformation since the 1980s more comprehensible. “We’re hoping that given the climate crisis, that this type of visual evidence can convey complex issues in seconds, and cut to the heart of debates, and really just accelerate moving towards solutions,” Moore says. “Often, with these controversial environmental issues, different parties don’t even agree on the basic facts of the situation on the ground. And with something like Timelapse, it’s very factual. Everyone can see with their own eyes, and I think it can accelerate moving into, ‘Okay, what are we going to do about it?'”
Google first started working with satellite photos to show change over time more than a decade ago. “It started, you might say, in the Brazilian Amazon, when we were actually helping indigenous tribes use Google Earth as a tool to understand what was happening on their land,” she says. “There were literally invasions of their land in remote parts of the territory they didn’t know about, but that were visible in Google Earth,” she says. A member of the tribe had discovered Google Earth when he went to university, and he reached out to Google in 2007 for help sharing the tool with others. Then environmental nonprofits asked for help analyzing satellite images to track deforestation in the Amazon, and Google helped collaborate on a tool called Global Forest Watch. The company later created a two-dimensional version of Timelapse that anyone could use to view planetary change from above.
The newest iteration of the project shows those changes in more detail. If you look at Las Vegas over the last few decades, you can see both how the city sprawls and how the mountains rising to the north form a natural boundary. (You can also watch the water shrink in nearby Lake Mead as the growing population demands more of it during a drought.) “We don’t live in a 2D world; we live in a 3D world,” Moore says. “And when you’re trying to interpret imagery of a changing planet, having it in 3D is quite powerful.”
In a time when most people have already directly experienced some of the effects of climate change—from extreme heat to hurricanes or wildfires—the tool also clearly shows the impacts in parts of the world most people may never visit in person. “It takes abstract concepts about faraway places—glaciers receding, and ice caps melting, and so on—and when you see it with your own eyes, it can be galvanizing,” she says.