Google is constantly adding enhanced features, virtual tours and more to its suite of mapping software, letting us see the world from our desks or couches. Google Earth, specifically, has been a true tool for environmentalists with its images showing the affects of climate change, allowing the discovery of illegal logging and fishing, revealing the devastation of mountaintop coal removal and more.
The software has opened up important views of the world to both researchers and the plain curious. If you enjoy hopping around the globe with the software, the views have just gotten better.
On the Lat Long blog, Google revealed a major upgrade to the global images that make up Google Earth. The satellite images have been replaced with newer, crisper versions from Landsat 8, the newest sensor in the USGS and NASA Landsat program.Google said, "Landsat 8 captures images with greater detail, truer colors, and at an unprecedented frequency—capturing twice as many images as Landsat 7 does every day. This new rendition of Earth uses the most recent data available -- mostly from Landsat 8 -- making it our freshest global mosaic to date."
The upgrade involved more than just exchanging one set of images for another though. Since clouds are often present in satellite images, but not always in the same place, Google's map team sorted through millions of images -- 700 trillion pixels worth -- and stitched together cloud-free images pixel by pixel to reveal the clearest, highest quality image of an area.
The previous images were all from Landsat 7, which was the best sensor at the time, but in 2003 a hardware failure led to large diagonal gaps of missing data in the images. These issues have been completely resolved with the new satellite images.
The upgrades were all produced using the same open Earth Engine APIs that allow scientists to create Earth-monitoring layers and research projects. Landsat data goes back to 1972, so observing 40 years of land use changes and climate change affects is right at their fingertips.
For the virtual traveler, the upgrades all available in both Google Earth and the satellite view of Google Maps. You can see the improvements down to 100 kilometers above sea level.