Home News Geologists embracing Google Earth

Geologists embracing Google Earth

USA, 24 December 2006 – For most of the 100 million people who have downloaded Google Earth, the biggest draw is the chance to look at 3-D satellite images of their homes, neighborhoods and favorite landmarks. Next up in Google Earth would be views of hazards that could threaten those homes, from earthquake faults to landslides, tsunami zones and areas that can liquefy in a quake, all superimposed on the same detailed satellite images.

Some of these features are available now; others are under development at places such as the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been a leader in adopting the virtual globe technology.

“A real trick has been how to communicate that data to the public in an interesting and effective way,” said J. Luke Blair, a geologist with the survey’s Menlo Park office. “You can essentially make your own map — see where you live in the context of the geology of the Bay Area.”

Since Google began offering Google Earth for free in June 2005, scientists have used it to illustrate volcanic lava flows, melting glaciers, the health of the earth’s coral reefs and wave sizes in the Great Lakes. “People have done things with it Google never envisioned,” said Frank Taylor, a North Carolina entrepreneur who maintains a Google Earth blog at gearthblog.com. “It’s much more valuable than just a picture of your house.”

USGS experts have tapped it to share real-time earthquake data, as well as maps that show the intensity of shaking. The public can join a 3-D virtual helicopter tour of the Hayward Fault and follow it right through the middle of the University of California-Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium.

Offering hazard maps at such high resolution can be tricky, Blair said. “What’s frightening to geologists such as myself is the red-lining implications,” he said. Many hazards are not mapped accurately enough to tell whether they pertain to a particular house or block, Blair said: “If you zoom in, and that line goes through somebody’s house, it could be off by many meters.” For that reason, managers at the survey are taking a careful look at how these 3-D maps should be released.

In the scientific community, Google Earth seems to generate the most buzz, even if it isn’t perfect. One of the application’s drawbacks is that while many urban areas can be found in high resolution, not all can. About two-thirds of the world’s people cannot find close-up views of their homes on Google Earth. At this time, Google Earth is available in only a handful of languages.

Still, researchers say what you can do with the application is amazing. One can track radiation levels at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, follow the spread of malaria across the planet, see how the Earth’s continents have rearranged themselves over millions of years.