Popular Science Highlights Scientific Applications of Google Earth

The July issue of Popular Science has a special series of articles highlighting five different scientific visualizations involving the environment using Google Earth. I’m glad to see a popular mainstream magazine giving visibility to visualizations with Google Earth that are not silly scenes found in the satellite photos, but instead show that you can share meaningful scientific and environmental data and make it meaningful. Many of these visualizations were presented at the American Geophysical Union Here’s a quick summary of the five visualizations with links to the respective KML files, the Popular Science article, and links to previous GEB stories on the visualizations:

GE Screenshots

  1. Volcano Tracker – Peter Webley of the University of Alaska’s Volcano Observatory developed tools to help track the ash plumes from volcanos in the Alaskan Ring of Fire. Because of a nearly fatal accident of a commercial airliner which flew into an ash plume, air traffic controllers are relying on tools Peter developed to visualize ash plumes in Google Earth in 3D so they can direct flights away from danger. Peter also developed a GE time animation re-enacting the near-accident of the commercial flight including the ash plume. You can see several examples of Google Earth visualizations on the plumes. See GEB story on this. By the way, special thanks to Peter for E-mailing me about the Popular Science articles.

  2. Storm Trooper – NASA has been using Google Earth to track scientific flights into large tropical storms in real-time with their Real-Time Mission Manager (RTMM) software. Michael Goodman at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center explains that Google Earth enables the planners on the ground to follow flights into storms and help direct them to key areas of interest. “Prior to the RTMM…we couldn’t follow them.” This is one of the most impressive uses of Google Earth for science I’ve seen. GEB wrote about RTMM when they presented at last Fall’s AGU. Here’s a link to the RTMM site (not working at the moment), and here’s a NASA story about the system.

  3. Emotion Map – Next up, Christian Nold gets to tell his story of creating a 3D emotion map in Google Earth. He put “galvanic response” measuring devices on the wrists of 100 volunteers in Greenwhich England and used it to measure their emotions responses as they walked around town. They also had PDAs to record what they were seeing. The resulting visualization in Google Earth is really cool. GEB first wrote about it in February 2006. Here’s a link to the Greenwhich emotion map . If you visit the Biomapping.net site, you’ll find several other cities are getting emotion maps.

  4. Arctic Eye – This article describes the great work by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado who have produced a great array of Google Earth KML files illustrating their scientific results monitoring snow and ice around the world. Walt Meir of the NSIDC was interviewed by Popular Science and he describes several of their visulizations and why they are important to scientists and communicating with the public. Highlighted in the story is the ice melt time animation which shows the extent of ice over time at both poles of the Earth as they melt during the summer. See several GEB stories on NSIDC’s Google Earth work.

  5. Flight of the Bird Flu – Daniel Janies, a professor of zoology at Ohio State University’s department of biomedical informatics describes his visualization with Google Earth to show the spread of the H5N1 avian-flu virus. Their map shows mutation maps of the flu and they are now tracking up to 1000 variations of the flu and can show the data with seasonal variations. You can read more about their project at their web site, and here is a link to the mutation map . And here’s a story from last year on GEB about it. Also of note is the avian flu tracker built by Declan Butler of Nature Magazine.

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.


  1. I absolutely love Google Earth, I use it for my teaching and research. I can easily show students local geologic features (Newfoundland has a lot of them) or quickly view potential sampling areas. Google Earth has made my life a lot easier.

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