The truth has a funny way of coming out when there’s a camera in the sky taking pictures of, well, everything. Google Earth has revealed a lot since it was introduced in 2001, from nude backyard sunbathers to North Korea’s expansive prison camps where an estimated 200,000 live and 400,000 have died. Most recently, researchers used Google Earth to uncover that many countries around the Persian Gulf have been under-reporting how many fish they’re catching to the U.N.
“Underreporting fish catches can jeopardize a country’s food security, economy, not to mention impact entire marine ecosystems,” a researcher told Quartz. “This is particularly important in the case of the Persian Gulf, where fisheries are the second most important natural resource after oil.”
Scientists used Google Earth’s ruler tool to measure the size of each trap and then calculated the daily catch based on historical records, length of the fishing season and composition of fish species present at each location. The scientists reported that every country in the region, except Kuwait, has been grossly under-reporting their catches, in some cases reporting well under half of what is actually being caught.
Google Earth is also used to identify illegal logging in locations like the Amazon rainforest. In 2007, the tribal leader of the Surui people in Brazil learned of Google Earth during a visit to an Internet café and has since started using Google Earth to ensure a sustainable future for his people. “Google’s technology plays an important role in helping build a better future -- a future with a conscience,” said Chief Almir Surui on one of Google’s promotional pages.
Google Earth isn’t all prison camps and rainforest devastation, though. In 2006, a group of students from Oregon State University made a 220-foot-wide crop circle in the shape of the logo for the Mozilla Firefox Web browser. The team contracted a plane and a helicopter to help document their progress. “Maybe the Google Earth cameras picked it up!” the project’s page reads. Google Earth did pick it up and it’s still viewable today.
Like a crop circle, the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif., looks unremarkable from the ground. But in 2006, a view from Google Earth’s cameras showed that its four L-shaped buildings form the shape of a swastika. Former host of The Power Hour radio program Dave von Kleist voiced his objection to the buildings on air. ”I’m concerned about symbolism,” von Kleist told the Los Angeles Times. “This is not the type of message America needs to be sending to the world.”
More complaints followed, and in 2007 the Navy said it would do something about it. But with an estimated $600,000 price tag for a redesign, the structure has still not been changed. Built in the late 1960s, the Navy contended that the swastika-shaped design was unintentional. Others have pointed out, however, that standard architectural practice would involve the creation and review of both two- and three-dimensional plans. It seems unlikely that a $2.3 million project (in 1969 dollars) would be built without at least glancing at some blueprints.
In 2003, the S.S. Jassim, a Bolivian cargo ferry, ran aground off the coast of Sudan. Not the only shipwreck visible on Google Earth, the 264-foot ship is, however, one of the largest.
The Davis-Monthan Air Force Base just outside Tucson, Ariz., is home to more than 4,000 military aircraft. Aircraft are parked there and broken down to be salvaged or scrapped. Though the base was never really a secret, not many people knew about it before Google Earth came along and revealed the spectacle.
While its imagery has shed light on some unpleasant truths, Google Earth also reveals beautiful things. Stratocam.com allows users to view and rate the most striking imagery captured by Google Earth around the globe. Google also offers tours of various cities, buildings, environments, UNESCO sites and even Mars and the moon through using Google Earth, Google Maps and Street View.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.