Starting today, if you want to explore the world's oceans — from the bottom of Monterey Bay to Australia's Great Barrier Reef — you won't need a scuba tank or submarine, only a home computer and Internet connection.
Expanding its popular Google Earth software, Mountain View-based Google on Monday unveiled an aquatic component — think "Google Ocean" — that aims to turn everyone into Jacques Cousteau.
The new feature combines satellite imagery, underwater photographs, video and scientific data that allows users to see 3-D images of the ocean floor, along with features like the location of shipwrecks and coral reefs.
It was rolled out at a news conference Monday at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, attended by former Vice President Al Gore, singer Jimmy Buffett and a who's who of oceanographers.
Marine scientists predicted that the free software will become an important tool in expanding the public's understanding of the oceans and the environmental challenges facing them.
"Not just sober scientists but the whole world can use this as a way to know the whole world," said oceanographer Sylvia Earle, National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "It took a long time for me to be able to see a turtle underwater, now any little kid can do it."
Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth's surface, yet less than 5 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped in detail. In fact, there are better images of the moon and Mars than of much of the world's undersea topography.
The primary information to create the images came from existing U.S. Navy sonar and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Marine researchers said they hope scientists will expand the maps in the years ahead, adding more sonar images, wildlife video and other information from their research.
The new version rolled out Monday contains some of that, including the boundaries of the world's marine protected areas, arctic ice and daily sea surface temperature changes, along with the routes of sharks, tuna, turtles and other marine animals that have been tagged with GPS devices by scientists at Stanford University and other institutions.
It also includes historic images, which allow users to see how places have changed over the years.
During the news conference, Gore, who works as a senior adviser to Google, highlighted that feature, discussing his visit to Montana's Glacier National Park in the 1990s. While Google Earth images zoomed in on the park's Grinnell Glacier, Gore noted how much it has melted in the past two decades. The new software also features historic information that showed the glacier's size shrinking since 1991.
"It's practically not even a glacier anymore," Gore said. "When I was there not long ago I walked where that pool of water has formed. This is an extremely powerful new tool.
"One of my fondest hopes is that people around the world will use Google Earth to see for themselves the reality of what is happening because of the climate crisis."
Google Earth, first released in 2005, basically works by creating maps that combine satellite photographs, aerial photography and geographic mapping data to build 3-D images so that computer users can "fly" — like in a video game — above the Earth to view mountains, coastlines, cities, even streets and houses.
Since then, the software has been used to map the refugee crisis in Darfur, damage from Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of last year's Chinese earthquake. Google assembled the aquatic version — an automatic download with the new Google Earth 5.0 — after meeting last year with many of the world's top marine scientists.
The ocean images are still a work in progress, however. Many undersea areas that have not been explored in much detail are only depicted in general shapes. Generating high-quality sonar images and photographs of every square foot of ocean floor would be a massive undertaking.
"It would take billions of dollars. You'd need fleets of unmanned underwater vehicles operating in formation, and some countries wouldn't even let you explore their territorial waters," said Marcia McNutt, president of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, based in Moss Landing. "It would take at least 25 years."
But previous generations have explored the land and the moon, and perhaps the coming generation will focus on the oceans, several scientists said Monday.
"Sometimes it is tempting for us to think we have explored everything we have to explore," said Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society. "A tourist can fly to nearly everywhere on the planet, and satellites have mapped nearly every square inch, but there are still places not explored, mysteries still to be answered."
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