Most of us will never travel to space or experience “the overview effect,” a feeling astronauts have reportd after seeing Earth from a distance. In orbit, our home looks surprisingly tiny and fragile, surrounded by darkness; as Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell put it in 1968: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
Many astronauts have returned home with a renewed passion for protecting our fragile planet, and scientists have long tried to recreate the overview effect for citizens using virtual reality, isolation tanks, and videos. Seeing is believing—especially when it comes to abstract concepts, whether it’s Earth’s place in the universe or irreversible climate change.
Google Earth’s new TimeLapse feature was inspired by a desire to show us precisely what climate change looks like. Using 24 million satellite images representing quadrillions of pixels compiled over the course of 37 years (thanks in large part to NASA), TimeLapse is an interactive, 4-D experience that illustrates how certain areas of the planet have changed incredibly quickly. Watch how sea ice in Greenland has melted as the planet warms, contributing to global sea level rise; how deforestation in the Amazon has intensified in the past 20 years; how the Aral Sea has dried up to a fraction of its size since the early 2000s; how decades of bushfires have impacted Yellabinna, Australia. You can watch skylines pop up seemingly overnight in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, and Dubai, UAE, alluding to the environmental costs of rapid urbanization.
“These kinds of poignant visuals play a really important role in the environmental movement,” says Kate Brandt, Google’s sustainability officer. “I think a lot about the ‘Earthrise’ image the Apollo 8 crew took in 1968, with the earth rising over the lunar horizon—people often credit that as a catalyst of the modern environmental movement, because we suddenly [grasped] the fragility and preciousness of the planet. Photos of the Cuyahoga River burning in 1969 because it was so polluted captured people, too. It led to water regulation and ultimately the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. We think about TimeLapse as having a similar power to educate, inspire, and show people visually what’s been happening on our planet.”