5 incredible discoveries made using Google Earth

No Atlantis, sorry

Many of us would be lost without Google Maps. We take it for granted but if you stop to think about it, being able to instantly view nearly any place on Earth is a great technical achievement. It’s useful for getting around and finding places to eat, but Google Earth and Maps have also been used to make amazing discoveries.

According to many media outlets, a 15-year-old Canadian schoolboy, William Gadoury, has discovered a lost Mayan city using Google Maps and a star chart. He has a theory that the locations of Mayan cities correlate with stars. The Canadian Space Agency turned its RADARSAT-2 satellite to check a location where he predicted a city and found a square. It’s likely an old field but various news sources have decided that it’s a lost Mayan city. He’s named it Mouth of Fire but there’s no actual evidence that it’s a city. Of course, that doesn’t mean great discoveries can’t be made and we have a few favourites. Here are 5 incredible discoveries made using Google Earth.

1. An ancient Roman villa

One of the earliest archeological discoveries using Google Earth happened the year it was launched. Luca Mori, an Italian programmer, was using the app in 2005 to look around his home town of Sorbolo near Parma. He spotted a strange oval shape of terrain that had a different shade compared to the surrounding land. He also spotted various “rectangle shadows” nearby. He began to trace his findings to make sense of them. What he discovered was an ancient river and the remains of a man-made structure of some sort.

Mori contacted the National Archaeological Museum of Parma and they thought it looked like the courtyard of an ancient villa. They set out to investigate the site and confirmed the existence of the ancient villa. At the site they discovered evidence including pieces of ceramic that lead them to conclude that it was a Roman villa over a thousand years old.

2. A lost rainforest

These days you would think biologists know of all the best places to look for animals and plants. A few hundred years ago people were still sailing to undiscovered lands and reporting back on new species. Today, we can see just about anywhere on the globe from our laptops. Surely there’s nothing new to discover? Apparently not. As part of the Darwin Initiative, British researchers were using Google Earth when it first launched to find mountains over 1,500 m that were close to Mount Mulanje. The idea was to find similarities between different patches of medium altitude rainforest. At one mountain in Mozambique, Mount Mabu, they spotted a large green patch. What they had found was a huge, unspoiled rainforest that was entirely unknown to the scientific community.

The 27-square-mile forest was known to locals but nobody had explored it because of the surrounding terrain and the civil war. Since the discovery of the “Google Forest”, biologists have explored it and found an ecological treasure trove. It’s an old-growth rainforest meaning it’s ancient and undisturbed, leading it to acquire unique ecological niches and species. Biologists have found many animals and plants totally unknown to science including snakes, chameleons, crabs, shrews, bats, and lots of insects (as usual).

3. The best-preserved crater on Earth

Image: Google Earth

One of the great advantages of satellite imagery is that it lets us explore regions that are inhospitable or incredibly vast. Deserts are a prime example and a number of discoveries have been made using satellites. One of our favourites is a meteor crater in the Sahara. The discovery of any meteor crater on Google Earth would be interesting but Kamil crater is thought to be the best preserved crater on Earth.

Luigi Folco was browsing Google Earth and found the 147 ft-wide crater and was surprised by its appearance. Craters hit the Earth quite often but are usually weathered away over time. On some other planets and moons, craters appear to be very pristine because there is less geological activity. But Kamil crater looks more like a crater you would find on the moon than one on Earth, with long ejecta rays emerging from the crater. This means we can learn a lot about the object that hit the Earth: it was 4.2 ft in diameter and travelling about 8,000 mph when it landed just a few thousand years ago. The crater’s young age makes it very interesting to the planetary geologists studying it.

4. New hominid species

Google Earth can be thanked for many fossil finds, though the fossils are obviously too small to be seen in satellite imagery. For example, a whale fossil was once found in Egypt but nobody knew where it was recovered from. Researchers used Google Earth and some detective work to find the correct site and make more discoveries. This use of Google Earth to indirectly discover fossils led professor Lee Berge to make the find of a lifetime: a new homid species.

Caves are a great place to find fossilised ancient hominids. In 2007, professor Lee Berge used Google Earth to compare caves and hominid fossil sites to look for patterns. Using this approach he catalogued around 500 caves that could also hold hominid fossils. He went on to search the caves and in 2008 made a startling discovery with his son and dog in tow. While approaching one of the caves, his son tripped over a rock that turned out to be a 2 million-year-old fossil. It was an entirely new species, now known as Australopithecus sediba. Any hominid fossil is an incredible find but these fossils were so exceptionally well-preserved that scientists could extract plant materials and dental plaque from their teeth.

5. Home

For most of us, Google Earth and Google Maps aren’t used to find evidence of ancient civilisations or unspoiled natural wonders. Instead, we use them to find our way home and that’s exactly what Saroo Brierley did in 2011. What makes this an incredible discovery is that Saroo fell asleep on a train when he was 5 years old and woke up 14 hours later. He had no idea where he was or where home was, but found himself in Calcutta and ended up living on the streets. After some time as a beggar, he was eventually adopted by the Brierleys, a Tasmanian couple. As he grew up, he wanted to find his home but had no idea what it was even called.

Fast-forward 25 years later and Saroo is searching Google Earth for clues that might lead him home. At first he would look at random towns, trying to spot anything familiar. Eventually he realised that the time spent on the train and the average speed of trains in India could let him narrow down the search to a distance of 1,200 km from Calcutta. Very quickly he found a town, Khandwa and instantly recognised landmarks including a waterfall where he played as a child.

Sarooo visited Khandwa and remembered how to get to his house but found it was deserted. He had a photo of himself as a child and remembered his parents’ names so he asked around. Soon a stranger told him to wait while he fetched someone. The stranger returned with Saroo’s mother. Using nothing but Google Earth and the memories of being a 5-year-old child, he found his home and his mother, which really is quite an incredible discovery.


Main image: Google