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What is Google Earth?

Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2008

Google Earth Pro with the Volcanoes layer visible, and tectonic plate boundary data from USGS displayed
Google Earth Pro with the Volcanoes layer visible, and tectonic plate boundary data from USGS displayed

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.
Each of these versions of Google Earth can be used to read and create data in KML (Keyhole Markup Language) format, which enables educators, students, and other users to share data.

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.

Google Maps is a product that includes some of the features of Google Earth, and can used to embed interactive maps into web pages. The Google Maps site was originally created as a service for providing driving directions. But curious enthusiasts examined the JavaScript code that supports the service, and quickly learned to create their own customized Google Maps. Subsequently, Google made the details of the Google Maps Application Programming Interface (API) public for all to use for creating customized user interfaces. In contrast, the Earth Engine was created to enable the public to run analyses on satellite imagery and geospatial datasets. This tool is unique in its ability to allow a wide audience to conduct analyses that were once limited to trained remote sensing scientists. Google Maps and Earth Engine can be used in all major web browsers and platforms. Another mapping technology available through Google is the Google Maps Platform. The Google Maps platform allows the user to customize and embed Google Maps into web pages or to retrieve data from Google Maps.

Google Maps Platform has various API capabilities, including Maps SDK for Andorid, Maps SDK for iOS, Maps Javascript API, Maps Embed API, and many others. Coding is not required in order to create simple Google Maps. Setting up simple customized Google Maps and posting them on the web requires logging into a free Google account and activating the My Maps tab. The map can be shared or embedded in an existing website using an assigned URL. HTML code is also displayed that can be used to embed the map into a web page. A web browser is sufficient for viewing maps created in this manner. A KML file that has been stored on a web server can be opened in Google Maps by entering its url in the Google Maps search box. While easy to create and share, these simple Google Maps are not as feature-rich as Google Earth.