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Satellite timelapse showing the retreat of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska between 1984 and 2020. Animation: Google Earth

Google Earth on Thursday unveiled new features for its Timelapse tool that allows users to zoom in on locations to view more than three decades of imagery, including from their mobile device.

Why it matters: The result is a sobering look at the overwhelming human footprint on the planet, from melting glaciers in Alaska and Greenland to deforestation in South America and the rapid expansion of cities.

  • By making intangible, long-term trends visible, the new feature provides scientists, journalists and activists with a tool that can tell stories but also ultimately may galvanize support for environmental protection.

How it works: Using Google Earth Engine the company combined more than 24 million satellite images, or "roughly 10 quadrillion pixels," to create the global cloud-free images that comprise Timelapse.

  • The updated feature adds mobile and tablet support, which adds potential new avenues for storytelling about how human forces are reshaping the planet.
  • The data sources include the U.S. Geological Survey/NASA Landsat satellites, as well as the EU's Copernicus Program and its Sentinel series of satellites.
  • Another partner is Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab, which helped to process and display the approximately 24 million satellite photos taken over 37 years.

Between the lines: The data processing requirements of turning all of these images into easy-to-access, compelling animations were enormous. According to a blog post on Google's website, the task required "More than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic."

Yes, but: The computing was powered by data centers that use 100% renewable energy, the company stated, given the company's commitments to cut its own emissions.  

Satellite timelapse showing the loss of forest cover in Rondonia, Brazil, between 1984 and 2020. Animation: Google Earth.

What they're saying: "Our planet has seen rapid environmental change in the past half-century — more than any other point in human history," wrote Rebecca Moore, director director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and outreach.

What to watch: The data isn't just useful for doomscrolling, but in fact the imagery is also being integrated into peer-reviewed research. There may be innovative studies yet to come on climate change and other topics, inspired by or using Google Earth data sets.

  • One study, published in the journal Nature in 2019, used the older version of Timelapse to show a 6,000% increase in summertime landslides on a Canadian Arctic island since 1984.
  • The study attributed the landslides to the melt of permafrost, a layer of permanently frozen soil found in the high Arctic.

Go deeper

Top general: Calls to China were "perfectly within the duties" of job

Gen. Mark Milley. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley told the Associated Press on Friday that calls with his Chinese counterpart during the final months of Donald Trump's presidency were "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his job.

Why it matters: In his first public comments on the calls that have prompted critics to question whether the general went too far, Milley maintained that such conversations are "routine," per AP.

The consumer's massive "war chest"

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Economists expect the pace of economic growth to cool off now that government transfer payments like stimulus checks and emergency unemployment benefits are in the rearview mirror. But evidence suggests that the U.S. consumer is sitting on a lot of financial firepower that could be a key driver of growth in the quarters to come.

Why it matters: U.S. consumer spending is massive, representing about 70% of GDP.

The Fed takes on its own rules amid stock trading controversy

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New disclosures that showed Fed officials were active in financial markets set off a firestorm of criticism. Now the Fed may overhaul the long-standing rules that allow those transactions.

Why it matters: What officials actively traded was sensitive to the Fed decisions they helped shape, including the unprecedented support that underpinned a massive financial market boom.