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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

Dec 13, 2021 - Technology

Google settles children's privacy suits brought by New Mexico

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google has agreed to set up a privacy and online safety initiative for children in New Mexico, after being accused of violating U.S. law that governs children's privacy on the internet.

Driving the news: Google LLC and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas announced a settlement Monday over allegations Google violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and New Mexico state consumer protection laws.

39 mins ago - Health

Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific COVID vaccine

A health worker in Palestine preparing a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 24. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech announced Tuesday that they have started clinical trials for a reformulated vaccine to protect against the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Why it matters: The rise of the Omicron variant has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines.

Retail stock traders power stunning comeback after deep selloff

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Stocks staged a Patrick Mahomes-esque comeback Monday, after plunging for the first few hours of trading.

Why it matters: The remarkable recovery suggests that retail traders who upended markets over the last year — most notably during the GameStop bonanza that occurred almost exactly a year ago — continue to be powerful influence in the markets.