NOAA uses Google Earth to take you down to the sea

The narrator of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” signed onto the Pequod because he wanted to see “the watery part of the world.” Modern-day Ishmaels can just sign onto Google Earth.

Google and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have launched the latest version of the online geospatial exploration program with a new component called Google Ocean. It contains images, videos, and historical and current data supplied by NOAA.

“This allows anyone anywhere at any time to explore virtually the ocean from their home computer,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s assistant administrator for research and a member of the advisory board for Ocean in Google Earth.

The Ocean layer of Google Earth is a way of making data gathered at taxpayer expense more widely available to the general public.

“What it does is allow access to the kind of data, information and imagery we normally collect,” Spinrad said. Previously, the data was embedded in a variety of Web sites and a variety of formats. The new approach allows access from a common, user-friendly platform and central Web location.

“Google Earth is a format that just about everyone who is computer literate knows how to use,” Spinrad said.

Google Ocean also includes content from the National Geographic Society and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Keyhole Inc., which Google acquired in 2004, created Google Earth. It integrates and provides access to satellite and aerial imagery, maps, terrain data, and other information.

In the Ocean layer of the program, clicking on the watery parts of the virtual world brings up data and imagery from NOAA research expeditions, such as a visit to the wreck of the Titanic. Users can also access information on the 13 U.S. national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument, including underwater video. There are maps of ocean currents, information on marine debris movement and data from NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center, which gathers information from hundreds of buoys in U.S. coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Such information is useful for everyone from fishers to windsurfers, Spinrad said.

“One of the really powerful tools is bottom topography,” he added, which provides maps of the coastal seafloor rendered with realistic elevations and some imagery.

“Within a year, we expect to be able to provide real-time access to imagery from our explorations,” Spinrad said. “We’re just getting a sense of what types of applications we can build.”

Last year, NOAA commissioned the Okeanos Explorer as the first U.S. ship dedicated to ocean exploration. It has a system for near-real-time audio, video and data transmission via satellite and Internet2 to five onshore Exploration Command Centers, which gives scientists an opportunity to participate in the ship’s mission as they are needed. Eventually, Web surfers will be able to watch as well.

Ocean in Google Earth grew out of talks with NOAA’s chief scientist, which led to the formation of an advisory board three years ago. Spinrad said adding the Ocean component to Google Earth was a goal from the beginning.

“It was so obviously something that needed to happen,” he said.

The project began in May 2007, and much of the work consisted of translating existing data into the Keyhole Markup Language, the geospatial language that underlies Google Earth.

The Ocean layer is included in beta Version 5 of Google Earth, which is available for free download.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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