Virtual Globes Sessions at AGU – Day 1

The American Geophysical Union is holding their fall meeting in San Francisco this week. The number of scientific papers and presentations at this event is overwhelming. Over 12,000 scientists, engineers and technologists are attending and from looking at the program it seems almost everyone is presenting. The reason I flew here from North Carolina was to attend special sessions organized on the topic of Virtual Globes (like Google Earth) where scientists are presenting examples and reasons why virtual globes are a powerful way to share scientific data with the public if it relates to the Earth (or other planets).
The Virtual Globes sessions have been organized by a group of scientists and researchers who apparently work together on some projects in Alaska: John Bailey of ASRC, Matt Nolan and Jon Dehn of University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and Luke Blair of the USGS.
On Tuesday, the first day of the sessions, there were several presentations on the subject of Earth Sciences for education using virtual globes. One thing that was immediately apparent is that the use of virtual globe technologies is very popular in the science community. This was a standing room only session all afternoon. Furthermore, although some of the talks discussed other virtual globe software, the popularity of Google Earth was readily apparent as every speaker mentioned Google Earth in their presentations. Also, Google had two different presentations (one on Google Earth for science, and one on the integration of KML with multiple mapping tools).

The education focus of the session, combined with a strictly enforced 15 minute limit, kept the presenters from going into a lot of detail. I was left wishing each presenter had twice the time alloted. Hopefully, more detail will be available in the poster sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. Here are some highlights from the sessions:

  • Tim Foresman, the first speaker, worked at NASA when the Digital Earth project was started after a speech by Al Gore in January of 1998. Tim announced that the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth will be held in San Francisco on June 5-9. The previous symposium was held in Beijing, China.
  • Pat Hogan from NASA’s World Wind project presented their latest plans. The free NASA World Wind is a virtual globe for not only Earth, but also other celestial bodies like Mars and the Moon. Their product currently only runs on Windows, but they are actively working on a Java version which will run on other platforms (like the Mac and Linux).
  • Bruno Bowden of Google was next. Bruno is the project manager for the Google Earth application and came to Google as part of Keyhole. Interestingly both NASA and Google demonstrated time animations of the Blue Marble. Bruno showed the one I developed for Google Earth which you can see here. I may be biased, but the GE one looked far better in my opinion. Bruno went on to show examples of satellite imagery, the UNEP environmental layer, and an interesting Geologic map of the US I hadn’t seen before. In the questions afterwards Bruno was asked if GE would be able to show sub-surface detail (so you could do model underground mines for example). The response was “we don’t discuss future releases” – “it would be interesting to see done in the future.” This question was asked 3 times during the session.
  • Bill Manley of the University of Colorado discussed a project where they used a GE presentation on Arctic Warming to 8th graders to understand how virtual globes could be used to improve education about this important topic. One key point was that the eigth graders became most interested when they zoomed in on the location of their school and saw it in the satellite photo. Also, Bill said that using virtual globes for education is in its infancy.
  • Jon Dehn of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks presented a project where they are working with K-12 schools in Alaska which are near volcanoes (not a hard thing to find in Alaska). They are giving them instrument packages where the students can record data about active volcanoes and the data is uploaded through the Internet, processed and presented back to the students in Google Earth.
  • Alan Glennon of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and writer of the Geography 2.0 – Virtual Globes blog, was up next. He discussed the proliferation of virtual globe software (showing a list of 30 different software applications). He also discussed his research interests in the areas of forecasting geysers (he’s used Google Earth to georeference geysers in Chile) and to model underground caves (where he also requested this capability for GE).
  • Brandon Badger of Google was up next with a presentation about the importance of KML for scientific visualizations. He emphasized the ease of converting datasets into KML and the new capabilities of using KML both in Google Earth and Google Maps. And, although he didn’t state it, many of the other virtual globes are supporting KML as well (like WorldWind and ESRI’s ArcGIS Explorer). I asked whether network links would be supported in Google Maps, and someone else asked about time animation – we got the standard “hopefully in a future release”.
  • Jon Blower of the Reading e-Science Center illustrated some data layers for marine science which are viewable both in an online web browser or in Google Earth.

After the presentation I saw an interesting demonstration of a planetarium-like dome with a projector showing a very Celestia-like software visualization giving a tour of the universe. Very cool stuff, and kind of funny as I had envisioned doing something similar about 3 years ago when I first saw Celestia. I really liked the inflatable dome they had for the demonstration. There’s a similar technology available based on’s excellent Starry Night planetarium software which is in use in some planetariums.
Make sure to read about Days 2 & 3 at AGU as well.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. hi frank. glad you could stop by for the dome demo after the virtual globes session. more about the inflatable systems for earth/space science viz at

  2. I enjoyed this session a lot; thanks for the good notes. The US geologic map is the classic one made by Philip King and Helen Beikman in 1974; it’s the basis of the “Tapestry of Time & Terrain” pages at USGS. As an oldtimer on the geological side, it made me happy to see its digital form on Google Earth.
    My own notes on the session have the additional point that World Wind R1 is due out on 22 December; Hogan said it’s up on Sourceforge now.

  3. Call for Papers – we liked the AGU Session a lot, so the American Meteorological Society IIPS Committee is sponsoring a Virtual Globe session in New Orleans, January 2008.
    sorry about the short notice, abstracts are due 10 August. -sts

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.