Google Earth is a geobrowser that accesses satellite and aerial imagery, topography, ocean bathymetry, and other geographic data over the internet to represent the Earth as a three-dimensional globe. Geobrowsers are alternatively known as virtual globes or Earth browsers. Google also refers to Google Earth as a "geographic browser." Other examples of geobrowsers are NASA's World Wind, ESRI's Explorer for ArcGIS, and GeoFusions's GeoPlayer. Google Earth Pro is available to download for desktop use for free. Google Earth for Web is a browser-based version and Google Earth on mobile is an app; both are also free of charge. Although the browser-based version has a certain ease of use (since it does not have to be installed as a desktop application), it does not have as many features that are helpful for educational activities. While it is possible to load kml files, to search for locations, and to use the Voyager for exploring various locations, there are some limitations to Earth for Web that do not exist with the Google Earth Pro desktop version. For example, creating a kml file in the browser-based version requires a work-around, this is mentioned in the User Guide section of this tutorial. The Google Earth Pro desktop version offers numerous features that are useful in educational settings, and offers additional capabilities such as higher resolution printing and saving of images and the ability to open ESRI shapefiles. Several versions of Google Earth are available for free download on Google's Google Earth Versions page.
Versions of Google Earth
- Google Earth Pro - This current desktop version, now free to use, has many features, including displaying satellite and aerial imagery, a growing set of layers of mappable data, the ability to display third party data, tools for creating new data, and the ability to import GPS data. Additional capabilities include movie making, as well as importing ESRI shapefiles and MapInfo tab files, measuring areas of circles and polygons, and can print and save high-resolution images. Google has created a Google Earth Education site to provide helpful information on using Google Earth with students. For a number of years the desktop version is what many people knew of as "Google Earth". Google Earth Pro had additional capabilities and was not free. Now Google Earth Pro is free, "regular" Google Earth has moved to Web. The desktop version (Google Earth Pro) has been the primary version of the software used in Earth science education but that may be shifting more towards Web. Unless other wise indicated, the following pages are referring to the desktop version, Google Earth Pro.
- Google Earth for Web (available for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and Opera) - An easy to use, browser-based version that provides ease of accessibility but is limited in terms of functionality. This version can load kml or kmz files, can be used to search for places, and has a Voyager option that, based on a user-selected subject such as Travel or Nature, can be used to follow a story from a collection contributed from various individuals and institutions.
- Google Earth for Mobile - An app with similar viewing capabilities as the Google Earth for Web, but one cannot build projects.
- Earth Engine - Combines satellite imagery and geospatial data with many analysis tools including the ability of the user to add their own algorithms for real world applications.
- Enterprise - This product makes imagery and other geospatial data available to employees within organizations such as corporations.
Google Earth provides search capabilities and the ability to pan, zoom, rotate, and tilt the view of the Earth. It also offers tools for creating new data and a growing set of layers of data, such as volcanoes and terrain, that reside on Google's servers, and can be displayed in the view.
It also uses elevation data primarily from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) to offer a terrain layer, which can visualize the landscape in 3D. For some locations, such as most of the western portion of the United States, the terrain data is provided at significantly higher resolutions.
Google Earth is not a Geographic Information System (GIS) with the extensive analytical capabilities of ArcGIS or MapInfo, but is much easier to use than these software packages.
It is available for several operating systems, namely: Windows, MacOS, Ubuntu/Fedora, and Linux. It is useful to check the system requirements when downloading the program.