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article imageSad, spectacular time-lapse animation shows human impact on Earth

By Jordan Howell     May 9, 2013 in Science
In only 30 years, great glaciers have retreated and a lake that was once the world’s fourth largest has all but dried up. For the first time ever, the human impact on the face of earth as seen from space is on full view, and it is not a pretty picture.
Google, in conjunction with NASA, the US Geological Survey, and Time Magazine, compiled millions of satellite images dating back to 1984 and stitched them together into a fully animated time-lapse experience.
The images were taken from NASA’s Landsat program, which was launched in conjunction with the US geological survey in 1972 to document environmental change and until now has been used to study agriculture, geology, cartography, and forestry. The program was the first of its kind, turning satellites toward earth rather than out into space.
According to Time Magazine, tech gurus at Google sifted through millions of Landsat images, cleaned them up, filled in missing pixels, and removed cloud cover to provide an unobstructed view of our changing earth.
“We started working with the USGS in 2009 to make this historic archive of earth imagery available online. Using Google Earth Engine technology, we sifted through 2,068,467 images—a total of 909 terabytes of data—to find the highest-quality pixels (e.g., those without clouds), for every year since 1984 and for every spot on Earth. We then compiled these into enormous planetary images, 1.78 terapixels each, one for each year,” said Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager at Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach.
The images put into stark relief the sometimes devastating impact humans have had on this planet.
Some of the most notable changes are the evaporation of once great lakes in Russia and Iran. The Aral Sea, located in southern Russia and once the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake, is little more than a sliver of water surrounded by barren land. Meanwhile, Lake Urmia, a salt-water lake in northwestern Iran has shrunk considerably.
While nature can be seen retreating from humans in some images, other images like the sprawling suburbs of Las Vegas and Dubai, the spread of irrigation in Saudi Arabia, or the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest, depict a mixture of progress and encroachment as civilization spreads into once pristine wilderness.
Although Google has publicized only a few noteworthy examples of our changing earth, users of the program, known as Google Earth Engine, can zoom in on any location and even see how their hometown has changed over 30 years.
Read the full story at Time Magazine.
More about Google, NASA, Time magazine, Timelapse, Landsat