Timelapse: Humanity’s Effect On Earth Over 28 Years

Timelapse Landsat Satellite Images of Climate Change via Google Earth Engine

Timelapse is a collaborative project of Google, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), NASA and TIME magazine showing the dramatic humanity’s effects on our planet over 28 years.

Timelapse by Google NASA USGS TIMEThe background of the project

Since the 1970s, USGS and NASA worked on Landsat, an ongoing joint mission using NASA satellites to collect images of the Earth, then archived on USGS tape drives.

Google started working on this huge archive of images in 2009, with the idea to make it available online: millions of high-res satellite images have been combined by Google to create a time-lapse experience visualizing the evolution of the Earth’s surface over the years between 1984 and 2012. As they say in their official post on Timelapse:

We sifted through 2,068,467 images—a total of 909 terabytes of data—to find the highest-quality pixels (e.g., those without clouds), for every year since 1984 and for every spot on Earth. We then compiled these into enormous planetary images, 1.78 terapixels each, one for each year“.

Google then worked with the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University to convert these annual Earth images into a browsable HTML5 animation.

You can visualize the animations (basically .gifs combined in form of video showcasing the changes occurred in a timespan of 28 years) in the Google Earth Engine Landsat Annual Timelapse page.

But to better contextualize the videos, I recommend a visit to the TIME’s Timelapse project page. It provides a multimedia experience and in-depth analysis of a few specific places, examples picked up to demonstrate how building cities, clear-cutting forests, razing mountaintops or raising global temperatures have deeply changed the planet we live on.

As example, read of the changes in Las Vegas, that exploded over the past few decades, sprawling into the desert while its main source of water, the nearby Lake Mead, is drying up and keeps shrinking, making its economic and environmental growth unsustainable.

Or watch drying up of the Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the Middle East and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, endangered by a combination of drought, increased water diversion for irrigated agriculture, mismanagement and a causeway built across the lake (keep reading below the video):

Or check the huge Brazilian rainforest deforestation: a single road built in the deep of the biggest rainforest in the world often lets in settlers and loggers, who clear more forest to make room for farmland. When heavy rains erode soon the unprotected soil, settlers leave to clear more forest and the land is converted to into pasture for growing herds of cattle.

Other amazing – and worrying – visualizations included in the TIME Timelapse page include the high-speed retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, the decapitation of the Appalachian mountains by the mining industry, the oil-sands development in Canada where open mines take the place of native forests, and a few more more.

You can even check anywhere in the world: just click on Explore the World, type the location in the search box, confirm. You can zoom in or zoom out and even toggle the playback speed:

Somebody might look at Timelapse as a fun tool only, but it makes me seriously think about how the way we live on our planet, our lifestyle, economical trends and policies choices have affected the place we live locally and globally, and hopefully this project is going to help to understand our impact and define better policies that will guide us in the future.

The images showing the sprawling of megacities such as Shangai, Lagos, Bombay, São Paulo, Nairobi should create questions on how to manage pollution, water, waste, social tensions, transport and other topics, questions useful to move towards a more sustainable and environmental friendly growth.

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