Low resolution imagery in Google Earth historical imagery

We have recently had several enquiries or comments pointing out that a lot of the imagery in Google Earth ‘historical imagery’ is very low resolution and we thought it would be best to do a post explaining it.

The low resolution imagery in question is a set of yearly (from 1984 to date) global mosaics of Landsat and Sentinel-2 imagery that Google added to Google Earth in November last year. It is a wonderful addition and allows us to see how the planet has changed over the past 26 years. We have done a number of posts on the imagery including creating a tool to allow you to animate the imagery with a dynamic tour.

When the imagery was first added to Google Earth, it only showed in ‘historical imagery’ mode and only when you were zoomed out and would transition to normal higher resolution imagery as you zoomed in. However, it would appear Google got it wrong with the most recent update to ‘historical imagery’ and for half of the earth it does not go away as you zoom in. This doesn’t prevent you from seeing the high resolution imagery if you move the slider on the time toolbar, but it does make it harder to explore imagery and users not very familiar with ‘historical imagery’ or not aware of the new Landsat / Sentinel-2 mosaics may not realise what is happening and think there is a problem with Google Earth.

It would appear, based on places we have checked so far as well as a map of recent imagery updates that we are currently working on, that the problem occurs only in the north-eastern quarter of the globe including all of North Africa, Europe and to the east, north of the equator. South of the equator and the western half of the globe starting at the Cape Verde Islands (around longitude 20° W) in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa and all the way to the antimeridian is working correctly with the Landsat / Sentinel-2 mosaics fading out at an eye altitude of about 10 – 20km (depending on screen resolution). Also, for the whole globe, the mosaics do not fade out over the oceans, although as far as we know, the image used for the oceans in the mosaics is the same for all years – but different from the image that is used as the base layer in ‘historical imagery’ which can still be seen if you move the date to before 1984.

In the image above we are looking at the equator where it crosses Sumatra, Indonesia. In the upper half of the image, north of the equator, the Landsat / Sentinel imagery has not faded out whereas south of the equator the higher resolution imagery is showing. The same effect can be seen along the equator where it crosses in Africa. The actual high resolution imagery in this particular case is not particularly good imagery being black and white and cloudy. This is because the particular location is difficult to photograph because of high levels of cloud cover being mostly tropical rain forest.

The region where the Landsat / Sentinel-2 imagery does not fade out correctly.

About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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. ben reuter says:

    The fact is that it spoils the histroy layer significantly for those who want to see enough details and compare how thiongs have changed! Let’s say if you have 5-10 clear views in the last 10 years they are now among 60-70 useless blurry nonsense. Moreover this creates some problems with the date. When you switch to a clear image at first the date tneds to be the wrong. Only if you zoom in and out or switch the history layer the exact date emerged.
    Not a great invention. They should care about the history layer by placing more high res images of the past – if available than to produce useless stuff – just my opinion

    • Peter Vercruijsse says:

      Using the historical imagery a lot, I too was very unpleasantly surprised about the addition of all those low resolution blurry images. In the past there was a varying number of high resolution views to compare. Now you have to wade through maybe 40 or more useless views trying to find a high resolution one. Not a step forward. I suggest that in the timeline bar the higher resolution views are indicated in a different color, so you can more easily skip the low resolution ones.

  2. ben reuter says:

    One more question: Could ist be that the overflow of images leads to difficulties to place the clear images properly?
    I now register very often “unparallel” elements in the images like at this Chinese Airport

  3. That “unparallel” effect at Xingcheng is probably caused by atmospheric distortion due to the angle/distance it was taken, because it is an oblique shot (you can see the sides of buildings). Either it has some interesting item in it or it just bypassed quality checks…

  4. John Bickerstaffe says:

    Do you think Google Earth will ever mend this?
    So tantalizingly close to viewing older images of England from 1984 where whole cities looked completely different. Looks good above 10km but does not focus when you zoom in which is a real shame 🙁 Surely it’s just an error if it works elsewhere in the World?

  5. I wish they had a separate history tab for the landsat imagery. It does clutter things up a lot.

    • Kevin Adams says:

      I agree entirely that the historical imageery feature is now extremely cluttered to the extent that if you are interested only in high res images it is so time consuming to find only such images hidden in the mass of less res images. In addition I have found that my overlay jpg files will no longer open since the latest update. I would be interested to hear if others are having the same problem

      • Rob Bilton says:

        So disappointed to find that the historical images are now blurry. Used to study those images to see what changes have taken place in the rural landscape and now it is not possible. Please change it back again.

  6. This makes Google Earth’s historical imagery utterly useless. There is no point at all to low res images. You can see nothing on them, and now have to wade through dozens of them trying to find the ones that are high res. We need a way to turn these useless images off.
    As an archaeologist, I use the historical images regularly. They are extremely useful for many purposes such as cropmarks and locating trenches dug a few years ago tha may not have been accurately plotted, but with the addition of pointless low res layers obscuring the high res, it’s a waste of time even turning GE on.
    When is this going to be fixed?

  7. This is a great example of why to never trust Google for anything especially it’s cars or air deliver with Amazon.

    Imagine having repeated problems of your neighbor’s package getting dropped on your house or your package getting dropped on the street because it was *off* a little bit on Google Maps. :p

    Google cars will also have *bugs* and glitches. They were silent for a long time after the bus crash out of being embarrassed.

  8. At least so far these problems are just annoying on Google Earth but nothing life threatening in real life applications which we can chuckle and move on.

    Google or should I say Alphabet is just stock brokers not giving a damn about computer products and probably don’t even use computers themselves unless it’s spreadsheet to do money graphs but most likely they have people below them that do that and all own Mac’s to show off.

  9. I agree with most of the above comments as I use Google Earth to monitor the changes in the landscape over the years. Perhaps a filter to block the blurred images or better still, a way we can use them by correcting the blur if possible?

    On the whole, a great tool, but if Google can separate the sharp and blurred images that would be excellent 😀

  10. The Landsat and Sentinel-2 imagery wasn’t in the historical imagery layer when it was first introduced. It was probably by mistake that it was later added to the historical imagery layer and I really hope that Google will fix this very soon.

    • When the low resolution images where first introduced the zoom feature worked correctly (as it still does for the US) so that the process of zooming in to a region in the UK eliminated all of the low res images leaving only the years where high res images were available. However, shortly after (around late December/ early January 2017) all images/years remain regarless of how close you zoom in. This surely must be an easy fix as it would just involve reverting back to how GE operated a few weeks back. I hope Google will take note of the requests made and correct this problem ASAP.

    • As Peter mentioned: it looks like this problem has been fixed!

  11. Ansel Spear says:

    Absolutely ruined. What was the point of that update? It’s now impossible to browse historical imagery without sifted through about 99% cr*p

  12. I use historical imagery a lot to see the progress of large projects in time, and for monitoring development of mining areas for conservation study. Now with the blurry images I am unable to observe the changes in time. This is very disappointing.

  13. Peter Vercruijsse says:

    It seems that Google has made a change! Historical Imagery changes to high resolution images only when you zoom in below a certain altitude. A big improvement!

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.