Google Earth
  Exploring the Pale Blue Dot

What happens when you put in the hands of the world, for free, the most accurate, comprehensive, detailed, realistic replica of the planet that has ever existed? Rebecca Moore, engineering manager of Google Earth Outreach

Read more about exploring the Google Forest from the BBC.


"Google Earth has become a digital museum, archiving history through aerial imagery." Mashable


Google Earth allows you to use a timeline slider to view satellite imagery of a location over time. This offers some amazing comparative exploration of changes. In my fourth grade classroom we used it to look at the deforestation over time in the region around our school in Dar es Salaam.

Video Tutorial: Time Travel


Google Earth allows you to measure distances on the map by selecting the ruler tool and shift clicking the first end point, then dragging and clicking to the next one. Want to know if the school football pitch is regulation size? Go for it. Want to know how tall the statue of liberty is? Um... it doesn't seem to work vertically. So, I suppose you could Google it.
  • Now, go play and explore with this feature in Google Earth.
  • Or watch the tutorial video below first...

Video Tutorial: Advanced Measurement & Paths



From the Tools menu select Flight Simulator, then choose your plane and your airport. The tutorial below definitely helps get a sense of the controls. My students first reaction when I showed them the flight simulator was "it's just like a video game!". About thirty seconds later, their reaction became "I don't think we should become pilots, especially you." (a.k.a. me). The simulator is an amazing way to explore 3D landscapes, but the controls definitely take some getting used to. I'm told it's easier with a joystick. It might just be worth investing in one. 
  • Now, go play and explore with this feature in Google Earth.
  • Or watch the tutorial video below first...

Video Tutorial: Flight Simulator



This is where the gravy starts to flow. Once you get over finding your house from above (if you ever get over that, I haven't), in the layers section is where you can add and remove onion-skin like layers of data from the globe. Want to see how volcano distribution mirrors the borders of tectonic plates, turn on the volcano layer. Want to fly out to a further orbit and see how the distribution of light at night mirrors the concentration of wealth on earth, browse through the NASA sub-menu to find the right layer and start poking away. 

There are hours of exploration to be had in here, but be aware that each layer activated adds more data to the map, and slows down the application. I usually try to only have active those layers that are key to my purposes of the moment. That, and all those little squares indicated photo details of the spot can really cover up a lot of terrain!



What would a vacation be without a tour? Wait, don't answer that. Depending on your travel style, you may be someone who likes an expert guide to walk you around, or you may be the traveler who wants to toss the guide aside and design your own route. In either case, Google Earth's Tour feature has an element for you.

Wherever you are on the map, you can click on the Tour Guide button in the bottom left corner of the viewing window to open touring options. Many of these are just a series of location specific images to browse through details, others can go much deeper. Or for a more global experience, select the Sightseeing Tour in the Places panel, and press the button below that looks like a folder with a play button triangle above it. This will send you zooming around to highlights of the globe, from the Eiffel tower to, um, Google headquarters. Be sure to have the 3D buildings layer activated for this. It really is pretty amazing, but if your connection speed is like mine, the speed of the tour will outrun the application's ability to really load the 3D environments. Use the Play/Pause button that appears when you mouse towards the bottom left of the viewer window to pause at each destination and give it time to come to life.

If creating your own tour does more for you, it's easily accomplished as well. Have a look at the tutorial video below for details, and be your own guide!

Creating Your own Tours, Tutorial Video:

YouTube Video

And more Tour-making tutorials...

TOUR 2.0

In the beta-stage at the moment is a tool that seems to be the evolution of Tour design. Tour Builder is a more powerful version of tour creation that seems more designed for creating interactive digital narratives. Follow the link above to see some experiments with it, from band tours, to recreations of the struggle for US independence. You'll need to have the Google Earth browser plug-in installed for this one.

YouTube Video

The War for Independence, HS History from Robert Lake.


This, to me, is where the applied power of Google Earth takes off. The Earth Gallery, accessible through it's button at the top of the Layers panel give you access to complex custom applications of layering data to create unique lenses on our planet. Categorized by topical interest, like Science and Environment, Culture and History and several more, these range hugely but include such complex information sets as a remarkable vision, visualization and narrative on climate change, with the one and only Al Gore, to an exploration of the wreck of the Titanic, to the truly fascinating application of the Brazilian Surui people as a cultural history, counter-deforestation measure and cataloguing of their land as a carbon trading basis for income.


Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: The Surui Story on Google Earth


A search for Google Earth on YouTube immediately serves up over 13 million results, the huge majority of which seem to be about oddities, freakish discoveries and things we're not meant to be seeing. This is mostly the crop circle and atlantis discovering crowd. In addition to this, are a huge number devoted to corporate logos and branding seemingly created expressly for the purposes of becoming Google Earth destinations. Who knows what we'd come across if safety mode was disabled... 

While a lot of this seems fun, but ultimately a bit trivial, these same sort of crowdsourcing explorations that Google Earth has made possible are connected the kind of really powerful global discoveries that make this such a fascinating tool. I mean discoveries like the "Google Forest" in Mozambique. One of the most profoundly amazing things about this tool is that it really is a remarkably thorough and complex replica of our planet, including both those parts explored and those that remain to be discovered. Now, elements of that discovery can happen while you're sitting on the toilet or waiting for the bus.

Have a look at this irresistibly overproduced video of Google Earth oddities:

Similarly, but with a very different flavour, are those who've looked at some of the bizarre imagery on Google Earth through an artistic lens. One great example of this is artist Clement Valla's work, who's found places where the satellite imaging and 3D rendering of landforms has misinterpreted then folded bits of our world into Daliesque surrealism with a post apocalyptic edge.!xMS1V

  • Now, go to Google Earth and find your own mysteries or create your own art
  • Browse the discoveries of others on YouTube
  • Or take a closer look at Clement Valla's work


Select the Ocean layer and head for the blue bits. As you navigate about, you'll see areas with white borders and hundreds of little icons popping up, from dive sites and surf spots, to world heritage sites and species profiles. Taking street view to a whole other depth, a range of underwater environments have been imaged and mapped.

Visit Heron Island resort and reefs in Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Explore the reefs of Heron Island, Australia

  • Now, dive in with Google Earth and explore the water by yourself
  • Or, for more examples and locations of underwater explorations on Google Maps visit the Google LatLong blog.


If the earth just isn't doing it for you anymore, how about Mars? Use the planet icon button along the top navigation bar to select among Earth, Sky, Moon and Mars to dive into other environments. Once your new subject loads, use the on-screen icons or options in the layers panel to locate and explore the world beyond the world.


Explore the Moon: Video Tutorial

  • Now, go explore the worlds beyond our world in Google Earth
  • Or visit these tutorials to learn more about exploring and navigating the Sky, Moon and Mars


Of course, all this interstellar exploration is fine, but if it's heading into afternoon in Dar, and you just want something between a few bits of bread, as promised... Type "sandwich dar" and watch Google Earth cleverly suggest that you're looking to find a sandwich near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Hit enter and presto. Why the dentistry school comes up as well is open to interpretation. Be careful what you order.

  • Now... Get to it! Enjoy the awesomeness of this world with the awesomeness of Google Earth.

Site by Jamie Raskin
Created originally for the Google in Education East Africa Summit, March 2014.

Creative Commons License
Google Earth: Exploring the Pale Blue Dot by Jamie Raskin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Embedded elements may fall under different licenses as defined by their owners.