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Google’s ‘Timelapse’ Exposes Human Damage to Earth Over 32 Years

From the development of the Alberta oil sands to the desertion of Chernobyl, our satellites have been watching.
The Aral Sea from 1989 to 2009. Image: Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

If you've ever been captivated by ants hard at work maintaining their colonies, you may want to check out Google Earth Engine's Timelapse, an interactive tool that generates views of Earth over long periods. Originally launched in 2013, Timelapse rolled out its largest update ever this week; the application now includes imagery captured from the past four years, and sharper resolution for existing data acquired from 1984 to 2016.


This means that users can select any region of the planet, and watch it change over 32 years from the perspective of our Earth-observation satellites. Centers of urban development show a particularly obvious and dramatic shift, sprouting out new communities and industrial centers that take root in surrounding spaces.

Take this timelapse of the San Francisco Bay Area from 1984 to 2016, which covers the eastern span replacement of the Oakland Bay Bridge from 2002 to 2013.

Image: Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

Meanwhile, the northern Albertan landscape is consumed by the development of the Athabasca oil sands around Fort McMurray, shown in this timelapse.

Image: Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

The reverse effect can be seen over Pripyat, Ukraine, home to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that suffered a catastrophic meltdown on April 26, 1986. Abandoned by its residents, the town was effectively wiped off the map after that event.

Image: Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

Beyond populated areas, there are other troubling signs of environmental damage exacerbated by human activity. This view of the rapidly melting Shirase Glacier in Antarctica provides a powerful visualization of the destabilizing effects of climate change.

Image: Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

Of course, there are many beautiful views of our planet's recent evolution on Timelapse, and there is even an admirably industrious quality to our ant-like development of so much of it. The tool is also a timely reminder of the many essential applications of satellite-based Earth science—which is a scientific field the incoming Trump administration has indicated it will significantly scale back on.

READ MORE: Archaeologists Find Mysterious Monument in Petra Using Satellite Imagery

You can explore the world directly on the Timelapse site, or take a tour through Google's playlist of video timelapses on YouTube.

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