NewsDecember 23, 2016

Google Earth Shows 30 Years of Climate Change

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

Satellites have revolutionized the way we see the world. Since the first satellite image of earth was taken in 1959, they’ve captured a world reshaped by humans.

Cities have risen, lakes have dried out, ice shelves have disappeared and the future of energy has begun popping up in deserts and fields around the world. Human ingenuity put the satellites into orbit hundreds of miles above the earth to chronicle these changes. And now human ingenuity has strung together decades of images to crystalize what those changes look like in every corner of the globe.

Google has been collecting a database of imagery from the Landsat and Sentinel satellite systems that spans 1984 until the present. It’s part of a petabyte-scale database from our eyes in the sky (for reference, you’d need 31,250 iPhone 7s — the basic 32 gigabyte version — to store a single petabyte of data). Using their Earth Engine system, anyone with an internet connection can see those changes. Here are some of the starkest and most hopeful timelapses of our planet.

The Larsen ice shelf disintegrates in Antarctica

The Antarctic Peninsula protrudes from the continent like a crooked finger. As climate change has helped crank up the temperature there, it has led to the spectacular collapse of some of the previously stable ice shelves on its edges. The vivid images of the demise of the Larsen A and B ice shelves are clearly visible from space. Now scientists have seen worrying signs that Larsen C is likely entering its final days. When ice shelves collapse, they allow the ice sheets currently trapped on land to speed toward the ocean, driving sea levels higher around the world.

The Aral Sea dries up in Central Asia

Once the fourth largest lake on earth, the Aral Sea (don’t let the name fool you, it’s a freshwater lake) has died a drawn out death at the hands of agriculture and drought. Farmers have been diverting water from the Central Asian lake for decades. From 1960 to 2010, the lake lost 88 percent of its area and 92 percent of its volume. A drought two years ago further expedited its transition into a dusty pit with a few puddles. More intense droughts fueled by climate change could only further serve to heighten water scarcity in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Oil sands production booms in Canada

Boreal forests blanket much of Canada. But zooming into the northeast edge of Alberta reveals a growing disturbance in the undulating stands of spruce and pine trees. The region’s oil sands boom has given rise to a mining and refining operation that has mushroomed over the past 30 years. Pits, tailings ponds and refining equipment have helped create an enormous footprint in the forest. The result has been a steady rise in production that reached more than 2.5 million barrels of oil a day on average in 2015. The emissions from the mining operation as well as the oil it produces contribute directly to climate change as well as local environmental degradation.

Palm oil leads to massive deforestation in Indonesia

A ubiquitous ingredient in everything from chocolate to shampoo, palm oil is almost certainly part of your daily life. It’s also a huge cause of deforestation globally as corporations clear huge swaths of rainforest and replace it with palm oil plantations. Nowhere has that shift been more apparent than Indonesia, which has the highest deforestation rate in the world. The forest loss hurts biodiversity and is also a major driver of climate change. In the 2000s, palm oil production in Indonesia alone produced as much carbon pollution as 45-55 million cars.

Solar power gains a foothold from China to California

Satellites don’t just capture the causes and effects of climate change. They capture the solutions, too. Solar power is one of those solutions, and its energy-generating capacity has been growing exponentially over the past 15 years. In 2015, an average of 500,000 solar panels were installed everyday around the world. That includes installations on rooftops of individual houses and utility-scale large arrays being built to produce energy for the masses. Some of the largest solar plants in the world are in China and California, their sharp geometric shapes mirroring the patterns on the photovoltaic panels that make them up.

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