Last month I introduced Google Earth—a truly fascinating tool for exploring the planet. This month we go deeper to learn all kinds of fascinating new uses for this incredible free tool. If you need a refresher, look into last month’s article. Fire up your own copy of Google Earth—you’ll want to play along!

The Layered Look

One of the most powerful features of Google Earth is the Layers feature, which allows you to display various other features on top of the existing map data. There are a number of fascinating possibilities. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Borders and Labels: Select this layer to see state and national boundaries and city names. This can really help you figure out exactly where you are.
  •  Roads: Prominent roads are featured on the map, along with labels. 
  • 3D Buildings: This is one of the coolest features in Google Earth, but it does require a higher-powered computer to appreciate. Turn on this option and when you get close to the ground, you’ll be able to see three-dimensional buildings.

Thousands of famous (and not-so-famous) buildings are already included, and you can even add your own house! (See the section below on Google SketchUp for details.) You can turn on full textures for the maximum realism or go for a flat single color for better performance.

  • Ocean: Traditional atlases treat oceans as empty space, but Google Earth gives you many options for exploring the oceans. Turn on the Shipwrecks button to see the locations and stories behind many shipwrecks. Ocean Expeditions takes you on a tour of several interesting expeditions. For example, one expedition that starts in Guam takes you on a tour of undersea volcanoes, some with videos! Animal tracking lets you select an animal such as a shark or a whale and see in first-person view where that animal has been swimming!
  • Weather: The Weather tab is equally fascinating. Turn on Clouds to see major cloud formations in close to real time. You can also view radar data and view current temperature and conditions anywhere in the world.
  • Gallery: This menu features some exceptional content. Especially noteworthy is the Ancient Rome 3D Gallery, which allows you to see what Rome looked like. National Geographic has provided several interesting options, but our favorite is the live WildCams. This feature allows you to view live webcams of animal habitats all over the world. Once we watched elephants come to a watering hole in Botswana while we ate our breakfast. NASA has some very nice imagery, and Wikiloc shows interesting trails. Note that some content comes from the outside Internet, so as always, you should monitor your kids as they use this content.
  • More: If you’re not overwhelmed yet, there are even more layers available in the (cleverly named) More section. Among the most interesting options here are Places/Categories, which allows you to place a marker on coffee shops and ATMs, and the Transportation section, which allows you to mark airports and rail lines.

Changing Space and Time

A program as comprehensive as Google Earth isn’t limited by silly things like space and time. There are many ways to modify when and where you’re looking. For example, you can choose Historical Imagery from the View menu to get a slider to pick a time span. For some parts of the earth, you’ll see aerial photos for the last fifteen years or so. In a few places (like Rome) you can go back thousands of years. 

You can also use the View Sun menu command to see the current day/night boundaries. This also pops up a slider so you can change the time.