Holistic History Extra: The Greatest Timelapse Ever Built

In my last post, I tried to argue the case that history is still in the making and the world is still changing rapidly. With that in mind, take a look at the new Google Earth Engine – something which I swear is the most amazing, beautiful and terrifying proof of that you will ever find. Because where Google Earth on its own (other Earths are available), allows you to skim through the entirety of the globe in detail…the Engine allows you to skim through history itself.

Here’s a little context: In 1972, NASA (it would be NASA, wouldn’t it?) launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. The beautifully named ERTS (it’s now called the Landsat) had a simple task – photograph as much of the globe as possible, in detail and in high quality.  The result – the “high quality” of the 1970s and the 2010s are not always compatible, except of course in terms of amazing hairstyles – is a collection of low-res images of everywhere you can think of from every year from 1972 to 2013. And this is where the Google Earth Engine comes in. Because the idea is simple – Google obtained the images from 1984 onwards, put them into a simple timelapse, allowed people to access it for free online – but the result is amazing. Because while the Landsat…well, sat, taking pictures idly in the upper atmosphere, it unwittingly captured 29 years of history on the earth below.

The Vlogbrothers have already covered the extraordinary environmental impact that you can observe over the time period, so I’m not going to bother telling you that. But there’s history at play here, and the most amazing part if that you can see it. Landsat captured the end of the Cold War and the subsequent urban growth – and rural decline – of the former USSR.  It captured globalisation with sprouting supermarkets, urban growth with ever-sprawling cities. It captured Haiti’s earthquake and Chernobyl’s explosion. In places, it manages to be beautiful, but in others it is absolutely terrifying – as cities expand and forests shrink, it gives off a powerful message about how much we realistically have left. I’m going to suggest you look through it yourself to get a sense of it – the little details seem to be by far the most powerful and amazing to me – but if you can’t get started let me offer you some suggestions -some mine, some Google’s – and a little context:

(Link here, then search with the bar at the top)


Rondonia sits right at the heart of the Amazon rainforest, but might not forever. This timelapse – one of the most worrying – shows the extent of the strip-cutting of the forest to make way for farmland. Look around, and all you can see is more cuts, more tears, less forest. From a political or economic point of view, this is fantastic – Brazil’s economy has grown massively in recent years, and is fast becoming one of the strongest and most stable in the world. But history forces us to look at the future as much as the present.


Dubai, while it had been rich since the discovery of oil in 1966 and its great market for Indian gold had developed later, really exploded in growth from the mid nineties onwards, when the city started to develop its tourism and high-wealth industry and cash in on the strict immigrant labour laws it maintained. You can see the city slowly develop from 1984 until – boom! – it starts building ridiculous skyscrapers and green parks and freaking artificial islands off its coast. It’s an amazing expansion to see condensed into a  few seconds.


London’s amazing just to look at, but scroll east to check out its docklands. They’ve been a site for urban development since 1988, when work on Canary Wharf began to turn the disused docklands into a commercial centre. Look a bit further and you can see The Millenium Dome  spring up, and even catch the beginnings of the Stratford Olympic Park.


This one, while subtle, is amazing. This is a map of the Berlin Wall – the circular wall that enclosed West German-alligned West Berlin with East German East Berlin. In 1984 it was standing. In 1989, it fell. Not only can you see a green patch emerge where the no-man’s land once stood, you can almost see the huge growth that both parts of Berlin experienced after reunification.


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