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Google Earth’s new time-lapse feature reveals decades of planetary damage

If you use Google Earth to look at Dubai from the air, you can now watch how the city has sprawled into the desert—and artificial islands have appeared off the coast—since the 1980s. If you visit Claushavn, Greenland, you can see glaciers shrink over the same time period. In Bolivia, you can watch the rainforest disappear. Instead of only offering a three-dimensional view of a place at a static position in time, the platform now also shows decades of change.

“Essentially, we’re creating this 4D experience of our changing planet over the last 37 years,” says Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth. The immersive experience—an enormous, 4.4-terapixel-sized video, called Timelapse—was built from 24 million satellite images from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the European Commission, and the European Space Agency.

Watching cities grow or forests shrink helps make the scale of transformation since the 1980s more comprehensible. “We’re hoping that given the climate crisis, that this type of visual evidence can convey complex issues in seconds, and cut to the heart of debates, and really just accelerate moving towards solutions,” Moore says. “Often, with these controversial environmental issues, different parties don’t even agree on the basic facts of the situation on the ground. And with something like Timelapse, it’s very factual. Everyone can see with their own eyes, and I think it can accelerate moving into, ‘Okay, what are we going to do about it?’”

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