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Visible Paleo-Earth FAQ

What's the project about?

The objective of the Visible Paleo-Earth (VPE) project is to create photorealistic, true-color, and scientifically accurate representations of the ancient Earth as seem from space. It is a collection of images and animations with global reconstructions of continental configurations, oceans, ice, clouds, and atmosphere of Earth's past environments. The first collection of images was released on Earth Day 2011 (April 22).

How far in Earth's past?

Currently we go as far as 750 million years ago because we have a better understanding of those periods. The farther you go in the past the less information we have and the more assumptions you have to make. We will like to complete later a set for all Earth's history starting from its origin (about 4,600 million years ago) to today.

Who created the project?

The VPE is a project of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, a new initiative to study the habitability of Earth, the Solar System, and extrasolar planets. The project was done by Prof. Abel Méndez (principal investigator) and four undergraduate students with the collaboration of Dr. Ronald Blakey (NAU) and Dr. Christopher Scotese (UTA).

How this project started?

It was just an accident. Long story short: We were developing simulations in preparation for future observations of Earth-like exoplanets. We needed to simulate hypothetical planets with various land and ocean distributions to test our ability to recognize them in other stars. We decided to first start simulating the past and present Earth as test models, but a review of the literature and discussions with experts showed that there were not such photo-like views of Earth's past. We had to do it ourselves, and the VPE was born as a spinoff of our main project.

How the images were constructed?

That was quite complicated. The images are a composition of data from NASA Visible Earth, Ronald Blakey's Global Paleogeography, and Christopher Scotese's PALEOMAP Project. Some of the data for the images was extracted manually, but most of the process involved computer scripts in various tools to reconstruct the images layer by layer. The advantage of this approach is that they are very easy to update and usable for scientific research.

What computer software was used?

ITT Interactive Data Language (IDL), a very powerful programming language, was the star of the project. We also used GIMPImageMagickPOV-Ray, and a lot of BASH script to integrate these tools. Only IDL is a commercial product, the other tools are open source and freely available for many platforms.

What computer systems were used?

We used various personal computers (Mac and PC) to create most of the images. Animations required a Linux clusters of computers at the University of Puerto Rico High performance Computer Facility (HPCf).

Are the distribution of landmasses correct?

Yes, to the best of our current scientific knowledge. They are based on global paleogeography reconstructions. However, if you are interested on local scales them you should check the work of others with higher resolutions reconstructions.

Are the colors of the ocean, land, and vegetation correct?

Yes, to the best of our current scientific knowledge. They are based on paleoclimatology and paleobiology reconstructions. The views look much better and realistic in global renderings with shadows, atmosphere and clouds layers.

Are the clouds in the images and animations correct?

No, they are only for visual impact. The clouds we are using now are based on current clouds (actually infrared images) from meteorological satellites such as GOES. Not only the distribution but also the abundance of clouds in Earth's past might be different. We are working in ways to reproduce clouds for those times.

What are the application of these images?

There are many educational and scientific applications. They provide an excellent educational tool to learn about Earth's past and present via presentations, posters, and animations. They can be used for scientific research as seed input for General Circulation Models (GCM) to study terrestrial climate and Earth-like exoplanets.

Can I use the images for educational and research purposes?

Yes, the images are freely available for education and research. If you use them please credit: The Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo, NASA, Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc., and The PaleoMap Project.

Can I use the images for commercial purposes?

No, unless written permission is requested and given.

Are there are high resolutions versions of the images available?

No yet, the only high resolutions images available are a few nice posters with a mosaic of the images. Better resolution individual images will be available after a peer-review publication of the image sets (probably next year). If you are a scientist working in a related field, you can request better versions now.

What's next?

We are improving the images in various ways including new data and previous periods. We are also creating the Visible Neo-Earth, a view of the future Earth. The first scientific results from the images will be published this year, sample discussions are available in our LabNotes section.