Ocean Exploration, Without The Claustrophobic Submarine

Google Earth is a magnificent production- you can virturally tour the whole world from a computer chair. Or so everyone thought, until one Sylvia Earle pointed out the major flaw in this idea. “My children, my grandchildren think it is great to see their backyard, fly through the Grand Canyon, visit other countries,” she said to John Hanke one day at a conference. Hanke happened to be the Director of Google Earth and Maps, and Earle had a bone to pick with him. “But, John, when are you going to finish it? You should call Google Earth ‘Google Dirt’. What about the ¾ of the planet that is blue?”

Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer and explorer, currently a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, formerly the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and recipient of 22 honorary degrees. She is a well-traveled aquanaut, diving in subs and scuba gear many times over, setting records for depth, including a solo sub dive to 1000 meters. Earle has spent her many decades studying the ocean and watching it change, and many countries and organizations have awarded her their highest honors. She has some serious credits. Earle had just met Hanke at a conference in Spain. “I had a chance publicly to say how much I love Google Earth,” she wrote later. And to point out that the then-current version of Google Earth was not complete. She wanted the vicarious exploring to extend to “the real Hawaiian islands, not just the mountain tops that poke through the ocean’s surface.”

In addition to all of her other achievements, Sylvia Earle won the TED Prize in 2009, the first year that Google Earth included oceans. The TED Prize is a $1 million prize awarded by the same organization that brings us TED Talks on all sorts of topics and ideas. The TED Prize aims to inspire ambitious thinkers, asking them what their biggest wish is. Sylvia Earle’s wish is that the whole human population would start viewing the oceans as Earth’s life support system, and taking care of it, literally, like our lives depend on it.

Earle’s TED Talk is eloquent, accompanied by fantastic photography, but when you look beyond the wonderful penguins and whales and jellyfish, even a basic overview of the myriad of life-support roles the oceans quietly play is astounding. They moderate temperatures by storing heat, heating up and cooling down much more slowly than the air. Without an ocean, this homely rock of a planet would have an average temperature of 153 degrees F- not terribly comfortable. Ocean currents distribute heat from the tropics to the poles, making more of the earth habitable for humans along the way. Life in the ocean, especially phytoplankton, use the gas carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, producing roughly half of all the good ol’ breathable O2 on the planet today. But with humans’ enthusiasm for fossil fuels, there’s getting to be too much carbon dioxide for the ocean to take. This means an acidic ocean, which means death and descruction for sea creatures, which means less oxygen production. It also means a warmer ocean, as the massive amount of water absorbs much of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases. A warmer ocean changes the lives of many different creatures, as well as disturbing ocean currents, winds, and rain patterns, drastically changing regional climates.

And yet most of us are unaware of what our oceans do for the planet and the beating they have taken. It seems they are the billion-ton, life-saving gorilla sitting relatively unnoticed in the middle of the room.

Syliva Earle wants us to notice, and to know, much more about the oceans, even if we don’t have her background. That’s why she goaded John Hanke (his verb) into including the world’s oceans on Google Earth, hoping to realize her TED Prize wish- that more people would value and fight for ocean health. “Knowing is the key,” Earle wrote as the first version of Google Earth Oceans was launched. “With knowing comes caring, and with caring there is hope that we can – and will —find an enduring place for ourselves within the mostly blue planet that sustains us.”

But what can you learn, what can you explore with Google Earth? A lot and not very much at the same time. Sylvia Earle narrates the welcome video (embedded below) and the overview video for Google Earth’s Ocean feature, which of course makes you want to download the Google Earth plug-in immediately and explore protected ocean “hope spots,” ocean acidification, ocean seafloor topography, and deep sea vents, among other places and data sets. And ocean research is still turning up treasures, as scientists venture into the remaining gaps in the underwater maps. Much of the ocean remains unexplored, and Google Earth’s Ocean component is nowhere near as complete as the land maps are, but they regularly get updated. Scientists are still discovering many new species in the ocean- big ones, not just new microorganisms- there’s still a lot to know. Right now, Google Earth’s Oceans feature has a mixture of videos of ocean creatures, habitats, and ancient shipwrecks, as well as 3-D maps of the ocean floor and the Titanic wreck. You can see film of a squid trying to eat a submarine 900 feet below the surface, and footage taken on one of Earle’s latest dives, of a dance with a curious octopus.

Google Earth’s Oceans feature is more than just a collaboration between Earle and Google. There are many layers to the maps of the oceans, each layer using data, video, and maps from different organizations. These contributers range from National Geographic to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to Cousteau, an environmental education nonprofit founded by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famous oceanographer and explorer. All the partners in this endeavor are listed here; it’s impressively extensive.

And for good reason, too; there’s a lot to explore on Google Earth’s Oceans, but there’s a lot more to learn about our big body of water. Google Earth’s Oceans component lets all the non-oceanographers get in on the fun. Sylvia Earle was the catalyst for the creation of this treasure chest of data, and now we don’t have to have gills or a submarine to get to know that other 72% of our planet. As Earle says, “you can swim with whales, inspect coral reefs, or see the impacts of destructive fishing.” You can get to know our life support system, zoom through 3-D ocean floor maps, and swim with thousands of sea creatures all without leaving your chair. Not a bad deal.

Google Oceans was first released in 2009, but the underwater maps keep getting extended. This is a short update from 2011 on some of the new parts of the ocean you can tour. Have fun playing around underwater with Google Earth!



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