May 9, 2013 at 3:50 PM ET
Satellite imagery can serve as a time machine, revealing dramatic change in just a few seconds — but can you imagine documenting almost three decades' worth of all that change, across most of our planet's land mass? A team of imaging experts, computer scientists and journalists did. Now they've unveiled the result: a global database of zoomable, animated satellite views known as Timelapse.
"We believe this is the most comprehensive picture of our changing planet ever made available to the public," Rebecca Moore, engineering manager for Google Earth Engine and Earth outreach, said Thursday in Google's blog announcement of the Timelapse project.
Moore said the project began in 2009, when Google started working with the U.S. Geological Society to make its archive of Landsat imagery available online. The team sifted through more than 2 million satellite images, adding up to 909 terabytes of data, and selected cloudless, high-quality views for every year since 1984.
Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab smoothed the views into seamless animations, and Time magazine built it all into a presentation that supplements the time-lapse animations with commentaries on climate change, urban growth and the other trends that are transforming the planet.
"I've been chiseling away at this project over the last 11 months, and am in awe of the folks who helped this come together in ways I could never have conceived on my own. Some very bright minds figured out how to make the biggest video frames ever constructed, equivalent to 900,000 HD TVs next to one another," Jonathan Woods, the Time project's executive producer (and a former colleague at msnbc.com), said in an email.
Google Earth is also hosting the Timelapse zoomable map. "Much like the iconic image of Earth from the Apollo 17 mission — which had a profound effect on many of us — this time-lapse map is not only fascinating to explore, but we also hope it can inform the global community's thinking about how we live on our planet and the policies that will guide us in the future," Moore said.
When it comes to telling the story of our changing planet, one time-lapse animation is worth a thousand words. But there's more to tell. Find out more about the trends illustrated in the seven animated images you see here:
Columbia Glacier: Alaska's retreating ice reveals how climate change is changing Earth's surface.
Dubai coastal expansion: New islands are sprouting along Dubai's coastline as part of a $14 billion land reclamation effort, arguably the largest project of its kind.
Irrigation in Saudi Arabia: Agriculture amid the deserts of Arabia? It's a growing concern, thanks to huge irrigation projects that take advantage of underground rivers and lakes. The water won't last, though: Hydrologists estimate that it'll be economical to pump water for only about 50 years.
Lake Urmia drying up: Iran's great salt lake is not as great as it was, and the reason for that is in dispute. The Iranian government blames climate change and drought, while critics blame the dams that have been built around the lake.
Brazilian Amazon deforestation: Satellite imagery documents the loss of Amazonian forest land in Brazil due to road-building, logging and agricultural clearing.
Las Vegas urban growth: What sprawls in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas. Landsat pictures reveal how urban development has spread out around Nevada's biggest city over the decades.
Wyoming coal mining:The Black Thunder mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin ranks as the largest single coal mining complex in the world, according to Arch Coal, its operator. Satellite imagery shows how the mine has spread out over the decades.
More time-lapse videos:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.