June 9, 2011 at 3:52 PM ET
By now, you've found your house, your favorite golf course, the Grand Canyon, Disney World, maybe even the world's largest beaver dam using Google Earth. Now, the application will let you explore the oceans in greater detail than ever before.
This week the search giant released new high-resolution maps of the seafloor, based on more than 20 years of data collected by 12 research institutions during nearly 500 ocean cruises. All those readings have been scientifically curated by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
The new maps, available as a layer in Google Earth, provide views of volcanic ridges, seafloor volcanoes with summit craters and calderas, submarine canyons that drain debris from rivers into the abyss of the ocean, and areas where earthquakes lift up the seafloor and trigger tsunamis.
All told, the new imagery covers an area larger than North America. That sounds big, but it actually accounts for only about 5 percent of the world's seafloor area. As oceanographers like to point out, we know more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars than we do about the ocean floor.
Users of the software have been able to view some portions of the ocean floor since 2009. Today's update sharpens the resolution in covered areas from 1-kilometer grids to just 100 meters (330 feet).
The sharper imagery allows scientists to see, for example, the details of earthquake fault zones and underwater landslides. Shifts in the seafloor along fault lines can trigger tsunamis, as witnessed off the coast of Japan this year and in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Such shifts are known to pose a risk for the northwest coast of North America as well.
The imagery is based on data collected by scientific research vessels that have traveled about 3 million miles across the oceans over the past two decades. A plug-in for Google Earth, the Columbia Terrain Synthesis, shows the tracks of the cruises that have produced the higher-resolution imagery.
To learn more about the application, read this news release from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).