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Google's timelapse photos from space reveal Earth's rapidly changing surface

Images from Google's satellite timelapse photography highlight the changes Earth has undergone – both negative and positive – over the past few decades.

Timelapse is a global, zoomable video that lets you see how the Earth has changed over the past 32 years.

Evidence of rapid change across the earth’s surface in the past three decades is now readily available, thanks to new technology and satellite imagery compiled by Google that shows the impact of human activity and development on nature.

Using Google’s latest toy, “Timelapse,” it’s possible to scroll over cities, landmarks, and natural wonders, watching as they develop or shrink between 1984 and 2016. The video service pulls more than 5 million satellite images largely from the Landsat project, a satellite imaging service, and pieces them together through Google Earth Engine, a tool used to analyze geospatial information.

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Earth Engine takes those images and merges them together to form 33 mosaics, with each corresponding to a specific year. Unlike Google Earth, which allows users to find particular addresses and buildings, Timelapse allows users to scroll and zoom around general areas and watch as the earth’s surface changes from afar.

What a quick flip through 33 years on earth shows, however, could be cause for concern. In seconds, the toll that human activity has taken on the earth becomes tangibly clear, with glaciers in the Arctic shrinking and sprawling cities both expanding and growing in density.

It takes just over 10 seconds to watch Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, one of the fastest retreating glaciers on the planet, retreat “catastrophically” over the years. As 13 million tons of ice break from the mass daily, Timelapse puts the smaller losses into perspective by showing the dramatic changes that have occurred in the past three decades.

But some wonder if this tool, one of the most comprehensive visual aids in understanding the effects of climate change, can actually implore people to take action against rising temperatures. While information about global warming is readily available now and backed by the vast majority of scientists, only 48 percent of Americans say they believe climate change is the result of human activity, according to a Pew Research Center poll on science.  

“Yet, are human beings capable of assimilating such global perspectives or is our consciousness tragically limited to a pre-space age, even pre-Copernican mentality? Are people only capable of acting on immediate, personal and local concerns, even though images from space can show us the bigger picture?” Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian.

“This is one of the real problems of our time … it also seems that we can watch any number of videos of expanding cities and vanishing ice without becoming globally conscious,” he continues.

But Timelapse also shows some signs of progress across the globe. In Washington, the video shows movement in an opposite direction, with forests becoming more lush and green as the years pass after the practice of clear-cut logging declined.