Rivers shriveling up. Green fields turning gray and jagged. Glaciers cracking and drifting apart.

It looks like as if a cancer is spreading across the planet, turning lush, vibrant life into something dry and diseased.

That’s the sense you get from watching a timelapse video of annual satellite images of Earth over the past several decades.

Google recently collected more than 5 million satellite images from 5 different satellites between 1972 and 2015. Most of the images come from Landsat, a satellite operated by NASA Earth and the US Geological Society since the 1970s. Other crucial images were taken from Sentinel-2A, a satellite controlled by the European Commission and European Space Agency's Copernicus Earth observation program.

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Through the time lapse, changes are both gradual and abrupt. In China, rural regions become sprawling metropolises. The Panama Canal becomes wider, capable of fostering far more commerce. The port city of Fukushima in Japan suddenly becomes a grim shadow of itself following the Tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011.   

Changes like these are abundant in the new feature and they tell the zoomed-out story of humanity.

Above all, the images show the toll of climate change, a phenomenon mostly invisible on a day-to-day basis that becomes shockingly vivid on a broader time scale.  

Here are some of the most jarring examples from this effort:

1/ Langhovde glacier, Antarctica

This is the largest ice formation in the world. In the 1970s, it appeared uniform and white. But as the years go by, it’s clear to see that the glacier is becoming weaker. As the surface ice melts, supraglacial lakes are forming. The movement of these the lakes combined with water’s ability to absorb light and heat (compared to ice’s reflection of light) causes cracks in the glacier and makes it melt faster. Ultimately, this trend could cause global sea levels to dramatically rise.    

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2/ Toshka Lakes, Egypt

You see the formation of the Toshka Lakes in the 1980s and 1990s, but the blue splotches of water quickly return to desert as the water dries up

3/ Nuflo de Chavez, Bolivia

Deforestation strips this previously lush land of its greenery and turns the landscape a dull brown. Bolivia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

4/ Dead Sea

The Dead Sea, situated between Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank is shrinking at a rate of 3.3 feet each year. A crucial water source, the Dead Sea is seen as an important regional stabilizer.

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5/ Chongqing, China

Home to 50 million people and situated between two of China’s most essential rivers — the Yangtze and Jialing — Chongqing is one example of how China’s rapid industrialization is hollowing out the landscape.


Defend the Planet

5 Jarring Google Earth Time-Lapse Images of Climate Change

By Joe McCarthy