Google Earth Dives Into Ocean Depths Oceans and seas that were once featureless expanses of blue in Google's atlas came to life this week. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and Google Earth guru John Hanke share the highlights and explain what home explorers can spot in this newly digitized version of the world's waters.

Google Earth Dives Into Ocean Depths

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You're listening to Science Friday on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. If you've ever wanted to visit Mars, like we were just talking about, and then maybe walk the planet, explore the planet on your own, or how about seeing the rusted hull of the Titanic? Or if that - outer space is more your thing, you might want to do other outer space things on Mars. Well, now you can visit all of these places, and you won't need an oxygen tank or a spaceship. You can explore all of these places in the newest version of Google's computer atlas, Google Earth.

And it's a great way to learn about science, too, whether you're interested in new underwater creatures discovered in the Antarctic seas or you just want to brush up on your Martian topography and see the tracks left by the Martian lunar - the Martian explorers out there. You can actually see where they went. Two pioneers in this field are with us this hour to talk about this virtual exploration adventure. And if you've got any favorite destinations on Google Earth or want to talk about Mars, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can always Twitter us, @SciFri. Let me introduce my guests. Sylvia Earle is the author of "Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas." She's also an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and founder of the Deep Search Foundation. She joins us by phone. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Earle.

Dr. SYLVIA A. EARLE (Author, "Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas;" Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society): Nice to be back on board. How are you?

FLATOW: I'm fine. How are you? John Hanke is the director of Google Earth and Maps for Google in Mountain View, California. He joins us on the phone today. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. JOHN HANKE (Director, Google Earth, Google Maps, Google, Inc.): Thank you. Good morning.

FLATOW: Dr. Earle, how did you get started in this? Get involved in this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Well, it was a chance encounter at a meeting in Spain, and John probably should tell the story, but I had a chance to publicly say how much I love Google Earth and how my kids love it, my grandkids love it. And I said publicly to John, why don't you finish it? You've done a great job with the dirt, but what about the water?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Is that about right, John?

Mr. HANKE: Yes. Sylvia was kidding a little bit, but she suggested that we rename it to be Google Dirt, because we had ignored...

FLATOW: Google Mud.

Mr. HANKE: The rest of the planet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And so, John, you picked the ball up from there?

Mr. HANKE: I did, you know? I mean, what Sylvia said got under my skin a little bit because once I started thinking about it, I realized that we had kind of inadvertently ignored a big part of the planet in our quest to make a 3-D map of the world, and it really maybe wasn't a good idea. We should maybe fix that. So, I had Sylvia come in and talk to the team, and she did a great job of inspiring them to do just that.

FLATOW: You know, Sylvia, it's been said that we know more about the backside of the Moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean, right? How true is that?

Dr. EARLE: That's still a fair statement. Certainly, we have better maps of the Moon, better maps of Mars and Jupiter. Only about five percent of the ocean has truly been mapped in the same kind of detail that we have for the Moon or Mars. That doesn't reflect - it's not reflected exactly on the new "Ocean" atlas that the Geographic has produced or on the new version of Google Earth that includes the ocean. But looking at it, it looks as though we've got all the facts in place. But if you really bore down, you realize that there's a lot left that we still have to fill in. We have the broad stokes in place.


Dr. EARLE: We know where the big mountains are, but the terrain that you would like to have is equivalent to your backyard is out there in the future, when we have better technology to really get down to where the action is and map the ocean.

FLATOW: And you know, that's evident when you go on Google Earth and you look at Mars, and you look at the terrain of the bottom of the ocean, and you see how much more detail we have about Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean.

Dr. EARLE: Isn't that ironic? I mean, I love reaching for space. The sky is above it. It is glorious, and I wouldn't take anything away from that. But we need to at least have equal attention given to this part of the solar system or this part of the universe...


Dr. EARLE: Since our lives depend on it.

FLATOW: John, how much can you really see underwater in the program? Tell us about how you were able to put the detail in there.

Mr. HANKE: Yeah, well, once Sylvia set us down this path, you know, as I dug in, I realized how hard it was to depict the bottom of the ocean because we just don't know that much about it. You know, one of our collaborators in this, Walter Smith, who's at NOAA, talked eloquently about this at our launch, about really, in a very quantitative way, how much more accurate our maps are in Mars than they are of the ocean bottom. We do have a map that at some resolution shows, you know, the ocean bottom for the entire world, but it's much more accurate in some areas than others. So...


Mr. HANKE: You know, our own NOAA has done a great job of mapping U.S. coastal areas and areas around, for example, the Hawaiian Islands. But when you get out into the deep, more remote parts of the ocean, you know, that's based on - a lot of times on - as, you know, Walter was telling me recently, a lot of the data that we have is based on ship soundings that may be decades old.

FLATOW: Right, right.

Mr. HANKE: And it's quite inaccurate. So, it's disappointing, in a sense, that we don't have better data, but it's also kind of inspiring to think there's this huge part of the planet that is unexplored still.

FLATOW: Are you going to be able to put some of the videos of the smokers and, you know, those chimneys in the hot water spots with those wonderful animals growing there?

Mr. HANKE: Well, we did. We actually have 20,000 data points scattered around the ocean because, you know, the point was not just to show empty geography. We wanted to give a sense of what it lives there. And so, we did that by partnering with, oh, a lot of scientists as well as media organizations like National Geographic and the BBC, folks like Woods Hole that take Alvin down to look out those vents and the smokers, and so, they provided lots of great images, photos and moving pictures, in many cases. So, we've got actual footage from the subs showing, you know, the smoke coming out and showing these crazy crabs and worms and creatures that thrive in these extreme environments.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. HANKE: So, yeah. It's kind of - it's a very neat way to kind of get a sense of what's around there, what's down there?.

FLATOW: And how do you search for that? If you were to go on Google Earth, how do you find those places?

Mr. HANKE: Well, Earth, you know - our idea of searching of searching in Google Earth is you point the globe at the place that you're interested in, and you dive in and look and explore. So, really, all you have to do is - you have to have the latest version downloaded, and then you turn on the Explore the Ocean layer, and then you'll see lots of little dots popup all around the world's oceans. Everywhere there's a dot there's a story, a photograph and sometimes a video. And you just double click and zoom in, and once you get to the ocean surface, if you keep going, you'd splash right through the ocean service and go underwater. And you can't...

Dr. EARLE: And that's such a cool trip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: It's just amazing to fly over. You see the surface ripple. Even creating that was quite a challenge, wasn't it, John? The...

Mr. HANKE: I - yes, (unintelligible).

FLATOW: So, you create the ripple as you fly over?

Dr. EARLE: Yeah. It looks like the surface of the ocean is actually moving, which it actually is, of course.

FLATOW: Wow. Can, Sylvia, can we see any damage to the ocean from this...

Dr. EARLE: Sadly, yes, there are places that show the effects of bottom trawling, and even from the skies above, where the shrimp fleets in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of China and elsewhere, you can see the great plumes that are emanating from the - behind the ships that are dragging the ocean floor. But more than just that, to be able to dive down and see what happens when a trawl goes over - there's much more information to come.

FLATOW: Such as?

Dr. EARLE: Well, things of that nature, plus - among the partners that were assembled - and there were ever so many; I don't know what the final count was - but we had a council of advisers that included representatives from the Census of Marine Life, for example, that have - provide databases for critters that live in the sea, to be able to see what kind of creature lives where with images. And another source that is incorporated is the ARKive, the U.K.-based organization that collects images, video and stills, of endangered species, land and sea. And they're spread all over the world now so you can visit with everything from snow leopards to whale sharks, and see them, in effect, where they live.

Mr. HANKE: Yes, something about that - Sylvia, one of the most powerful things you said to the team was, look, you know, people have to see this in order to begin to care about it and then hopefully to begin to change their actions. And the data from ARKive, which shows, you know - which puts a face - which has these great images of the world's endangered species, both on land and in the water, does a remarkable job of that. You can - you know, you hear about a creature like a humphead wrasse; well, you know, how emotionally connected are you to that? But when you see photos of this gigantic beautiful fish swimming freely, you know, in the Red Sea, which is the area where - one of the areas where you would find it, it really brings home, you know, what a majestic species this is and what a loss it would be if it weren't around. And you know, we're just - we're trying to get that information out there, and as schools kids and adults are using Google Earth, we'd like them to...


Mr. HANKE: Stumble across these little nuggets and maybe raise awareness a little bit.

FLATOW: Sylvia, is this something that scientists can put their own data into and share?

Dr. EARLE: Oh, absolutely.

FLATOW: Among themselves?

Dr. EARLE: Yeah. One of the aspects that I love about this whole enterprise is that this is the beginning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: We referred to the launch as the commencement. Now, it begins. You know, we've got the platform, and the invitation is out there to use this platform to, really, provide information, keep it updated and think of new ways to use Google Earth with - now that it's complete, John...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: With the ocean to tell stories, to get information, to look at patterns. The alliance - collaboration with the National Geographic has made possible looking at about a dozen focus areas with short video clips that describe the nature of each of these places, but then people have put in, in addition to that, hundreds of photographs that fill out the nature of what is in, for example, the Galapagos Islands or the waters around Bermuda, the Sargasso Sea. And so, it is just a beginning. I think that we may have opened Pandora's Box in a pleasant way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Good things are coming out.

FLATOW: Brendon in Philadelphia - we hope so. Brendon, hi, welcome to Science Friday.

BRENDON (Caller): Hi there.


BRENDON: Yes. So, I'm wondering about the great Pacific garbage dump. I've read a few articles about it online, and the reports are that it is decades of currents, its ocean currents, have been pushing plastics together in a region of the Pacific Ocean, and now it's basically a floating island of garbage that twice the size of Texas. And I haven't been able to find it on Google Earth, but I'm wondering if it's available to be seen now with this updated version.

Dr. EARLE: John, you want to take...?

Mr. HANKE: Well, I'll say something about that. You can see some of the effects of it. You know, from what - the way it's been describe to me that there is this massive amount of plastic. A lot of it is just beneath the surface, so it doesn't show up in satellite images as clearly as you may think. But what you will find, for example, is an image of a monk seal in this area west of the Hawaiian Islands as you get out into the Pacific that's entrapped completely in garbage. And you know, you see the effects that this can have on wildlife.

BRENDON: Uh-huh.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's talk a little bit about Mars, too, because it's a fantastic view that we're given of Mars. Did you have cooperation with NASA and JPL in getting those images?

Mr. HANKE: NASA built that dataset for us, and it's really their work, and they went to great lengths to include, you know, the latest images from the orbiters and even, you know, from the landers. So, you get this sort of street-view-on-Mars experience. You can put yourself in the position of standing there and looking around, you know, at 360 degrees. So, yeah, it's as close as I'll ever probably get to walking on Mars...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKE: And you know, I love it, frankly.

(Soundbite laughter)

FLATOW: Well, you know, it's interesting. We were on there today looking at the Mars comparison, some of the canyons of Mars and the canyons of the Grand Canyon, and you can actually get a more detailed picture of Mars than you do of the Grand Canyon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: That's heartbreaking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKE: Well, I think it's miraculous that, you know, we can virtually have this experience of lifting off and flying across those canyons in Mars or just planting yourself and, you know, walking across the surface. You know, I was a huge science-fiction fan as a kid, and you know...


Mr. HANKE: I love this ability to kind of virtually experience what it might be like to actually be there.

FLATOW: Let's me just do an ID. This is Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with John Hanke of Google and Sylvia Earle. Yes, Sylvia, you wanted to jump in here?

Dr. EARLE: Yeah, just that the maps in the new "Ocean" atlas that the National Geographic has produced, it really updates, the first time in 30 years, information about the sea floor. There is a map starting each of the chapters about the major ocean basins, and that's a hold-in-your-hand version that gives you an idea of both what we know and what we don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. EARLE: There is so much more to explore.


Dr. EARLE: And it's just a wonderful convergence that we'd now have the ocean in Google Earth, and we have a new fancy atlas of the ocean that makes it possible to see the world with new eyes, both of them.

FLATOW: Sylvia, where would your prime target for new exploration be to fill in those gaps?

Dr. EARLE: Goodness, anything beneath the surface...

(Soundbite of laughter)


Dr. EARLE: But I think the high seas represent probably the areas of the greatest unknown, the place beyond national jurisdiction that is currently sort of open like the Wild West nation's settler, out there exploiting it before we've even had a chance to see what's down there.

FLATOW: And now, we have the exploitation of polar cap, too, we keep hearing about.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah, well, under the ice at the North Pole.


Dr. EARLE: Or not the North Pole exactly, but all of the Arctic. It's never been possible to see what was there before, except with little tiny samples drawn from holes that are carved into the ice. It's true in waters around Antarctica as well. But the deep sea - I mean, I'd long to go the Mariana Trench, of course. I've wished for that for years. And now, perhaps we may be on the edge of being able to truly explore it. Only two people have been seven miles down, and that was 49 years ago. I hope that I'll be around to witness and maybe participate in, not just to bounce to the bottom and quick look around and, yes, there are critters down, but to thoughtfully explore the deep sea and connect it to everything else.

FLATOW: Is there a project planned to go back?

Dr. EARLE: Well, there are plans underway right now to design subs that will go to the deepest part of the ocean. They don't yet exist, although Woods Hole has a robotic device that is on the edge of being launched to go to full ocean depth. I love, as you know, I love the idea of certainly having robots go everywhere...


Dr. EARLE: But there's no substitute for sending a real live human being.

FLATOW: Well, if they don't cut science out of a stimulus package, maybe you'll get to go back there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The comprise committee is looking to cut a huge amount of the NSF budget that was put in there, I was reading today.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah. Well, the company, DOER Marine, has actually embarked on this project called Deep Search. So, it's worth checking out.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And John, one last thing. I've got about a minute left. What about Google Earth? Could we have Google Atmosphere?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know? You've got - there are different...

Mr. HANKE: You know...

FLATOW: Layers of the atmosphere. You have the ozone hole, and you'll have all kinds of weather patterns and stuff.

Mr. HANKE: I - you're right. I think that could be our next product idea. Now, I think, you know, the connection between ocean and atmosphere and climate changes has been an interesting kind of byproduct, being able to expose some of those connections, but yeah, there is probably more we could do there. But this idea that there is a lot of exploring still left to do on the planet is fascinating to me, and I hope that we continue to build up the details of the ocean bottom. In Earth, you know, people are still discovering things, sometimes with little clues from Google Earth. There was a group recently that found a little patch of green in Mozambique on Google Earth, and scientists mounted an expedition to this patch, which ended up being a bit of forest that people hadn't spend much time in before, and they discovered several dozen new species.


Mr. HANKE: So, as we map, I think there is a lot that we can still learn about the planet that we live on.

FLATOW: Well, thank you both for taking time to be with us. Sylvia, always great to have you back.

Dr. EARLE: Yes, nice to be onboard, and look forward to seeing you again.

FLATOW: Whether you're at the bottom of the ocean or just at Central Park Lake, it's - I remember that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Indeed.

FLATOW: It's always good to have you. Sylvia Earle, author of "Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas," also explorer-in-residence at National Geographic and founder of the Deep Search Foundation; John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps for Google in Mountain View, California. Have a good weekend to both of you.

Dr. EARLE: Thank you.

Mr. HANKE: Sure.

FLATOW: We've got to take a short break. We're going to switch - let you guys take a breather and come back and talk about the FDA. So, stay with us. We'll be right back, talking about fixing the FDA.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

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