Google Earth Impact: Saving Science Dollars and Illuminating Geo-Science

Article ImageScott Madry remembers how hard it was to get a decent aerial photo before Google Earth.

As an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the Fulbright honoree has relied on bird's-eye views of the rural French countryside to find archeological excavation sites for over 25 years. Getting these views, however, often required snapping photos through rented airplane windows during low-level flyovers, an expensive process he describes as "extremely inefficient and not a little dangerous."

Google Earth changed all that. While Madry continues to spot dig sites from above, his flyovers have gone virtual. From his Chapel Hill office, using the search-engine giant's free geo-mapping program, he is able to identify potential excavation sites more quickly and without having to use precious grant money.

"I found in all those years just a handful of archeological sites," he says. "And after really not very much looking at all, a couple of weekends hanging out in my office at home doing this for an hour at a time, I found over a hundred. I was astounded."

Madry is not alone in singing Google Earth's praises. Though not specifically designed for scientific use, since its beta release in June 2005, the program has seen growing use by geologists, geographers, and archeologists like Madry who say the program's intuitive interface and fluid 3D satellite mapping is streamlining once cumbersome research methods and making earth science more accessible to the public than ever before. Researchers from the Alaska Volcano Observatory created a Google Earth program that graphically displays volcano threat while seismologists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) use the program to map the intensity of post-earthquake tremors.

"We need to get this imagery," Madry says, "and then we need to get it into the hands of multiple levels of users who have no experience in the software. That's where something like Google Earth has a fantastic practical purpose, because you can just get on it and show somebody in two minutes what they need to know."

Google is enthusiastic about the product's adoption by professional and amateur users alike. "The scientific community really embraced Google Earth from the start. The product has only existed for about a year and a half, and already we've seen a substantial amount of use," says Chikai Ohazama, a Google Earth product manager. The company released version 4 of Earth in January to include Google SketchUp, which is a 3D software modeling tool that enables users to model the world for professional use and to share in Google Earth.

Like Madry, Ohazama attributes the program's popularity to its accessibility. "Google Earth provides a platform so scientists can present their work in a very compelling way. Yet it's available to anybody. You don't need any special tools to use it," he says. According to Ohazama, Google Earth has been downloaded over 200 million times since its release.

"I think its one of the most successful freely available applications," says Fred Taylor, publisher of the Google Earth Blog, an independent publication that has been following the program's development since its release.

A former NASA flight simulator developer turned blogger and entrepreneur, Taylor says Google Earth facilitates increased sharing of scientific geo-referenced information, though he warns that its usefulness as an actual research tool should not be overstated. "Geographic information system (GIS) applications are still very important and, if anything, Google Earth has made that clearer," he says.

David Wald, a seismologist at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center agrees. He sees Google Earth as a much less expensive complement, not a replacement to existing research tools. For his "Shake Map" after-tremor project, his team uses both static image maps and GIS imaging in addition to Google Earth layers to present their data for different audiences.

"If we do things right, the only thing that will limit the technology will be their creativity," says Wald. "The future is definitely going to be determined by users."

Wald, Taylor, and other Google Earth users certainly do have some specific ideas for the application's future. Taylor says Google needs to reorganize the list of placemarker layers available in the program's sidebar while both men agree that one of Google's next steps should be to take Google Earth inside the planet's crust to offer sub-surface mapping.

"In seismology and a lot of different fields you want to get under the earth," says Wald. "To be able to take a section of the earth, move into it, see the data that's been collected way down in mines, to use seismology to look at wells and different geologic units—that you can't do with the current approach. That's a whole new frontier."