Exploring the World From Your Desk

Distraction is one of the great perils of white collar work, right up there with poor posture and the development of flabby, underused leg muscles. That’s because if you’re working on a computer in 2019, you’re almost certainly on the internet — and more engaging activities are never more than a click or two away. Educational Wikipedia journeys, news of the uplifting or enraging variety, social media packed with shameless exhibitionists, propaganda, holiday planning, whole lifetimes’ worth of video and audio content — it’s all right there, tempting you.

Worse still, large portions of the internet — run by businesses that live or die based on whether they can grab and hold your attention — are engineered down to the pixel on doing just that. It’s very easy to get sucked away.

Lately, one of my favourite distractions has involved soaring above a remarkably lifelike rendering of our planet on Google Maps. This began when I discovered that, by holding the “command” key on a Mac or “control” on Windows (I think?), Google has laid its vast trove of satellite images over a digital rendering of the planet’s geology. Suddenly, peaks like Mount Rainier — an imposing volcano that, on clear days, looms over Seattle like some kind of god — turn from white smudges on a two dimensional image into a glorious three-dimensional version of their true selves. 

Check it out:

And here we are when tilted a little:

I’m hooked. I like maps enough to begin with — if I’m not careful, they’ll draw me across a room and suck me in for hours — but with the added ability to zoom, rotate and tilt on three-dimensional satellite images? You may never see me again.

What’s more, Google has surveilled a selection of cities around the world so heavily that they can actually provide 3D representations of individual buildings. In these places, the world starts to look a lot like SimCity. Here’s Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, with Mount Rainier in the background: 

Here’s an image some lucky readers will recognise from their flights in and out of a certain city:

Here’s lower Manhattan, a true SimCity:

You get the point.

Roaming this digital mini-Earth has become a dangerously time-consuming pastime over the last few weeks, and I like to think I have made an artform out of taking screenshots of the birds-eye views I find. I usually prefer to turn the labels off during my wanderings — I like not knowing exactly where I am or who I’m looking at. It feels much like I imagine an extra terrestrial would as they take a first pass of this strange new planet — only without all those pesky clouds getting in the way.

As in the real world, mountains are by far the most dramatic landscapes to explore in this way. Here’s K2, the second-highest mountain in the world:

Sure, if you look closely there are a few places where the image has stretched and warped to fit the sheer landscape, but this is probably about as close as I will ever get to the summit of K2. When I shift the image and wait for the landscape to render into its full sharpness, like the sudden focusing of a camera lens, the results can take my breath away. (Also, I love that Google is inviting me to search for restaurants, hotels, bars and coffee in the high Himalayas.)

Here’s a view of Denali, in Alaska:

My favourite views are those that encompass the transition from one type of landscape to another, usually involving some kind of change in elevation. 

That’s Nepalese and Indian foothills on the left, Himalayas in the middle and the Tibetan plateau on the right. Stunning, isn’t it?

Here’s my favourite:

That’s the high Peruvian plateau and Andes on the left, with snowcaps draining away to form the great rivers of the Amazon rainforest on the right. I was lucky enough to see a version of this — though not quite as high — on a flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado several years ago. And while I’m not physically walking in those mountains or through that jungle, I do get to fly the plane wherever I want.

From above, the Earth is full of strange and elegant patterns. Here’s a tract of Australian’s remote Gibson Desert.

Here’s another desert: China’s Gobi.

This one should be familiar:

(You should probably settle in, because I can do this all day.)

Here’s a swampy region of tiger-infested jungle in the Bay of Bengal known as the Sundarbans:

This next shot comes from the edge of a national park in the Sundarbans, where human habitation borders protected wilderness.

For much of the planet, you only have to zoom in a little way to see the signs of human civilization. For this, I like to focus on the flat areas of the world, where there are few physical impediments for our expansion. It reveals us as a networked species, huddling in clumps linked with spidery threads reaching across the land. For example, here is a zoomed-out vision of the United States’ Midwest region.

That’s the city of Chicago in the upper right corner. Here’s a portion of northern India, zoomed right in, that truly boggles my mind.

Each of those tiny dots is a village.

Here’s a view of northern China, looking south across the Yellow River.

Some interesting agriculture:

The amount of detail you can see on the more heavily populated places on Earth — both the glamorous and not-so-glamorous — is incredible. Here’s one I like of the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona. 

And here’s a ship being loaded with what appears to be rubbish in the San Francisco Bay. 

I have serious reservations about a company like Google possessing such a thorough model of our planet. When, combined with their knowledge of our whereabouts (through the GPS in your phone), your communication (through your emails) and your thoughts (through your browser), it’s not hard to imagine that, with a suitable amount of computing power, they might be able to someday populate these intensely realistic maps with avatars for every smartphone owner in the world. Money-hungry advertisers and paranoid governments might be able to watch you roam the world in real-time.

(Just joking — they already do.)

But let’s set mortal threats to privacy, free will and democracy aside for now, because while much of this technology is scary, it can also be really flipping cool. Another thing I like to do is revisit places I have been in real life. Here’s a portion of Olympic National Park that we recently hiked, only when we were there much of the landscape was shrouded in low clouds:

Here’s a shot looking up at some terrain I rode a bicycle up a few years back. In it, you can see a wayward finger stretching off of central Mexico’s plateau reaching toward the Pacific coast. 

And here are a couple of lakes we hiked to in Corsica this past summer (I told you I could do this all day):

And then, like K2, there are the places where I am unlikely to visit any time soon. Here, for example, is the border region between a remote stretch of Afghanistan (on the right) and Tajikistan (on the left). 

One of the more curious phenomenons of travelling the Earth in this way is the ability to see the same landscape in several different seasons, depending on the time of year that an individual satellite image was taken. This tends to happen in the more remote, polar regions of the world. For example, this is Adak, one of the remote chain of Aleutian Islands that arc like a necklace between Alaska and Kamchatka:

Ever heard of Heard and McDonald Island? Neither had I, until I spotted them on my wanderings above the remote southern Indian Ocean. The islands are an Australian territory, and include a volcanic mountain 500 metres taller than any peak on the Australian mainland. 

Oh, and then there’s this:

Look a bit unfamiliar? That’s because it’s a canyon in a place none of us have ever been:

Yeah, I’ll see you in a few years.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen through Google Earth? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Exploring the World From Your Desk”

  1. For all my grumblings about how much time you spend zooming around google, when laid out like it is above, this is pretty darn cool. Where to for our next adventure?

  2. Hey cobber! This is also one of my favourite time sinks.

    Check out this must watch short doco on astronauts getting philosophical about their trips to space….

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Francis, this is fantastic. I just love how straight-laced, crew cut-wearing air force pilots (Mitchell, Garan and Kimbrough all flew for the air force before their NASA missions, according to Wikipedia) return from space talking about the oneness of life and the fragility of our ecosystems like wild-eyed hippies. Makes me very happy.

Leave a Reply