Google Earth is probably best known for its huge collection of freely available satellite and aerial photos for places all around the world. Almost everyone who has access to a computer has given it a try – usually to look for their house, or to find out about a place where they want to take a vacation. The imagery database is really huge – millions of square kilometers – the equivalent of millions of 8 megapixel digital camera photos. Google hasn’t released the numbers, but we’re talking hundreds of terabytes of images.
However, an equally important feature in Google Earth are its “Layers“. Layers provide access to all kinds of other data for Google Earth. Seriously, all kinds of information including videos, photos, Wikipedia, real-time weather, real-time traffic, 3D buildings, GPS tracks, and more. The layers are provided through an interface on the lower left of the Google Earth application called, surprisingly, “Layers”. Believe it or not, there may be even more information in the layers than in the imagery!
Google Earth layers provide a wealth of information about our planet on a variety of subjects, and the layers are also a way for Google to share valuable contributions of information from many individuals, and organizations. The layers are organized using a folder-like structure with broad category layer folders at the highest level. You can open each folder with a “+” sign to then selectively view sub-layers. There is so much information here, it takes time to explore and learn what is available. To turn on a layer, simply click the box to the left. A check-box appears when all the layers in a folder are turned on, the box is filled with green when only some of the layers in the folder are turned on.
One thing you probably don’t want to do is turn on too many layers at once. I recommend only turning on a few layers at a time at most, and turn them off when you are done. When you see a placemark icon for some information, make sure you try clicking on some of them. Some of these layers provide a lot of information in the descriptions of the placemarks.
For basic geographic information, I suggest you try the following:
Terrain – This layer is currently found at the bottom of the list and you should almost always leave it on. It is the 3D terrain you seen when you “tilt” your view in Google Earth and allows you to see things like mountain, valleys, and canyons. Without this turned on, you also can not dive into the ocean. And, 3D models may not sit properly on the ground if you don’t have Terrain turned on.
Roads – Google has detailed roads and streets for many countries around the world. As you zoom in you get more detail for the roads including street names. From higher altitudes you’ll see fewer (or no) roads.
Borders and labels – this layer folder lets you see the outlines of countries, island names, coastlines, and administrative orders (states, counties, provinces, etc.). It even includes details on some disputed border regions. It also contains a sub-layer for populated places (names of cities and towns). Again, as you zoom you may see more or less information.
Geographic features – this layer folder contains sub-layers for things like locations of volcanoes, names of mountains, and water bodies. This layer folder is now found under the Places of Interest layer folder near the middle of the list.
Another selection of the layers serve the purpose of highlighting points of interest if you are traveling. This is the same kind of information you get with a modern car navigation device (or GPS) for finding hotels, restaurants, etc. Examples of these kinds of layers in GE are: Dining, Lodging, Shopping and Services, Transportation, Travel and Tourism, Parks and Recreation, and Community Services. Like with the roads, Google has been steadily deploying this kind of information for more countries. You can find these layers under the Places of Interest layer folder. The layer contains a LOT of information. I recommend turning on the folder whenever you are exploring a broad area for the first time.
All of the layers mentioned above are useful and important, but the really interesting layers are coming from a variety of sources not originally maintained or created by Google. In 2006, Google released the “Geographic Web” layers which consist of a careful selection of useful information inlcuding millions of user-generated photos, and articles from Wikipedia of places all over the planet. And, when that isn’t enough, you can turn to the Gallery -> Google Earth Community layer which show placemarks from posts made by hundreds of thousands of contributors about virtually everywhere on the Earth (read more).
Another important layer folder: the “Gallery” layer folder highlights content from a variety of organizations. Here you will find information from Rumsey Historical Maps, National Geographic Magazine, Discovery Channel, European Space Agency, and even the United Nations. These layers highlight information of human interest, science, history, the environment, and more.
If you haven’t explored the Layers in Google Earth, you are missing out on a world of information. And Google is continually adding and updating the layers. New and updated layer information comes out nearly every month.
- Weather Layers
- New 3D Building Layer
- National Geographic MegaFlyover Africa Photos
- Categorized African Animals
- Geographic Web Layers Added
- UNEP Environment Layer
- US National Parks Layer
- Street View Layer – France
- Transportation Layer Improvements
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.
John Mack says
Is there any way that you can include a radio type check button that will hide (not unselect) the layers of your choice.
It would be great if there was a fast key selection that you could use to pre-load custom layers (f1-f10) ie. Hiking: would turn on terrain, GPS tracks, but also turn off roads, 3d buildings etc. City: would show street view, 3D buildings, Traffic etc.
Small request but I use Google Earth for Scouts as well as home use, and would find this very handy..
Big wish would be to be able to create profiles of layers and user content/overlays that I could store on-line and log in via my Google account.. Hint Hint..
Strongly agree to John Mack in the comment above. This is one of the issues that often has made me wonder how a mature product like GE can have such annoying useability issues. There really should be a way to create custom profiles of enabled/disabled layers and custom content, as well as a way to access such things via hotkeys. The layers tree -and most of the GUI, to be honest- is a mess to use the way it is now (and has been since about forever).
Frank, you rightly emphasize the huge contant and importance of layers, and how to handle them effectively.
But surely the layers interface is the weakest part of the whole GE experience. Why isn’t there an option which displays layers full screen, rather than in a fiddly narrow menu, to give the user an overview of the richness of layers? This could link to metadata explaining the hierarchical structure, sources and content of each layer, and any limitations.
Anyone have any idea what happened to the “Google News” layer. It used to live in the gallery folder, but I no longer have it.
I’m running 5.0.11337.1968 (beta) on XP SP3 but no Traffic tick box – any ideas?
I commented on the difficulty of getting a complete overview of the layers available, but the ‘layers’ section of the Wikipedia article on GE may help
It has some links to further metadata, but is not entirely systematic or complete, nor does it deal with ‘deleted’ layers such as news or the inactive red dot place marks, but GE users could help add more. It does, however, illustrate the somewhat eclectic arrangement of the layers.
Thanks Frank, you were right. I am UK based. Setting language to English (US) made “Google News” reappear along with a few others including “Traffic”.
However this news layer contains no UK data, unlike when it launched, and so its hidden status makes sense. The traffic layer does contain some UK data so its hidden status is strange.
John Mack, great idea! They also need to add a search field for the layers. Start typing in “school districts” and the layers tree starts narrowing down with each letter typed. Somebody should tell Google about how useful this ‘search’ thing is.
I would love hotkeys assigned to layers!
And how about a feature that allows you to explore a different way using the mouse: move the cursor to the edge of the screen and the camera begins to move with it. The scroll wheel allows you to move forward and back. It’s a more user friendly version of the flight simulator.
Josh Strike says
Am I the only one who’s having problems with GE5 on OSX 10.4? There seems to be a bug where all placemarks, images, wiki articles, etc. that should open in a dialog bubble open up a small, empty bubble that never loads any content. This is with the latest beta release, 5.0.11337.1968 …never happened with any prior release.
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
Has anyone else noticed that the Roads layer moves around when the Terrain layer is active? The labels seem to be at a different altitude than the terrain so they shift and disappear when you navigate.
“And Google is continually adding and updating the layers. New and updated layer information comes out nearly every month.”
Can I ask how is this updated information made available to us? Is it downloaded automatically by Google Earth or do we have to reinstall Google Earth to get the updated information?
I ask this because I made several corrections to Wikipedia coordinates data a while ago in Wikipedia but the old tag is still being displayed. Also, a few new subway stations have been opened recently in my city, Singapore, but they have not yet appeared in the Subway layer on Google Earth.
If a populated place (red circle) is misplaced, how do you move it to the correct location?
Is there no way to save your layer setting so it is there the next time you log in? Or save different settings depending on what you happen to be doing with it/
I have the same question…
For me what’s really great about Google earth in general is – i can sit in front of my computer and, with a few clicks, see, hear and develop an emotional understanding of what it is like to be someone on the other side of the planet.
George Carman says
Is ther a way to export placemarks in a kml as UTM coordinates (not lat long)
John Cree says
George Carman: I would export as kml then use GPSBabel (http://www.gpsbabel.org/) to convert to UTM coordinates in a txt for xml file or whatever format you want.
Ken Mitchell says
And for all of that, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to see the names of rivers – even MAJOR rivers – in Google Earth or Google Maps. How about adding that?
Ramesh Dumaru says
how can i download the layers of google earth
Jay Williams says
Agree with above, is there a way to download specific default layers? as a base so you could add to the given info and improve ? Parks and Recreation Areas > US National Parks > Trails > Trails to be specific
medhin Shimelis says
I want to add additional information under Google earth layer, showing that the full urban water distribution net-work model and its profile of my city, so how can I do that? behind that am doing my second degree research on water distribution modeling so I need to provide my research out put/result to z world community through Google Earth, so please, please aid me how I can, is a part of my Msc. research/thesis.