Historical Imagery in Google Earth 5

I get a few emails every day regarding Google Earth’s “historical imagery” feature, so now seems like a good time to revisit the topic. Frank first wrote about this new feature back in early 2009 when it was released as part of Google Earth 5. I’ll leave his content below, as it’s a great introduction to how it works, but first we need to discuss one oft-overlooked aspect of historical imagery.

Historical Imagery can be newer

We mentioned it back in February of this year, but it’s important to realize that the newest imagery in Google Earth can often be found in this historical imagery feature.
Google is very careful about the imagery that they release to the default layer. If new imagery is good (but not good enough), they’ll often it put it in the historical imagery layer. Reasons why it might not be “good enough” can be due to some clouds in the way, haze/pollution, sun at the wrong angle (lots of shadows), and things of that nature. Despite whatever minor shortcoming it may have, the imagery still may be of value to you, so be sure to check for it.

How to use the Historical Imagery feature

Google already had more satellite and aerial imagery available for free than anyone. Now, they’ve added a new feature to new Google Earth 5 that let’s you turn back the clock and see other imagery they have for locations around the world. Click on the little “Clock” icon in the upper middle (or the “View->Historical Imagery” menu item). A time slider appears (see below) showing available imagery. If other imagery is available in your current view, you see little tic marks on the slider. Drag the slider (or click the left/right buttons) to see earlier or (or even newer) imagery.

Historical Time Slider in Google Earth 5

For example, here’s a shot of the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium from the 2008 Beijing Olympics as it appeared under construction on February 17, 2007:
Historical Image of Beijing Bird's Nest Stadium in Google Earth 5

And, here is a video showing this all in action:

This feature is amazing! The amount of data Google is storing must be immense! Several instances of imagery for millions of square kilometers! You may be able to see how your house changed over the years, or see aerial pictures of cities from decades ago. Expect to see lots of posts on this new feature.
In addition, Google has put up their own post with examples of historical imagery in action.
(Originally posted Feb 2009)

About Mickey Mellen

Mickey has been using Google Earth since it was released in 2005, and has created a variety of geo-related sites including Google Earth Hacks. He runs a web design firm in Marietta, GA, where he lives with his wife and two kids.


  1. A good example of newest not being the default is Nashville, TN right now. The default imagery for most of the area is April 13. Middle TN had devastating floods on May 1 and 2. The skies hadn’t completely cleared by May 5, but that “historic” imagery shows water in lots of places water isn’t supposed to be, even though it’s too cloudy to be the default.
    Turning on 3D buildings right around the Cumberland with that imagery date really highlights the catastrophe.

  2. There is no doubt that historical imagery is a great feature and resource, but, as often with Google, explanatory information is lacking in places. For example it seems that not all previous high or medium res imagery,is available, m,ay be for licence and royalty reasons.
    But there are some cases like London where very good high res imagery has not been retained after update by inferior imagery, and I am sure that many users would appreciate some selective editing to ensure that the best does go into the historical imagery.

  3. It’s a brilliant feature and I certainly hope the recent 1945 images for the UK are extended.
    It would be nice if they do similar with a historic map overlay. Scale OS Maps for Britain go back to Victorian days and it would be brilliant to overlay them with imagery.

  4. Any plans on updating imagery for Connecticut ( State wide)?

  5. For Germany unfortunately the indicated dates of the imagery are often wrong. Wide areas of the black forest are labelled as from 2000, but the images are newer as 2003, as can be seen by new constructed buildings.

  6. The historical imagery continues to be extended for the UK – now several big cities are covered. It’s a brilliant feature.

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