Putting Google Earth to the test

Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 1:50 PM

One of the most dreaded things for a field ecologist (myself included) is spending all day at the computer. Instead, we'd rather be, you guessed it, in the field. For this reason, I’m one of Google Earth’s biggest fans -- even when I have to be indoors, I can explore the world. I’m a doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, doing research on the ancient bristlecone pines, the oldest living trees on earth. I've been using Google Earth on a daily basis to import my data quickly, see it overlaid on aerial imagery, plan my route, upload points to my GPS, and then turn off the computer and head out into the field completely prepared. You can read about my work, and examine some of my data, in a new case study that’s up on the Google Earth Outreach site.

I’ve also found that Google Earth is great in the classroom. While teaching an introductory biology class, I decided to replace an outdated library assignment with a virtual plant ecology search mission. Want to test your own knowledge? Head to Google Earth to look up the following locations and take a stab at answering some of my questions:

1. Use your Internet research skills to learn a little bit about Ngorongora Crater in Tanzania, then find the site in Google Earth. Can you find the safari vehicles? Large animals? What kinds of plants do you think are growing along the shores of the lake? What kinds of plants would you find along the crater rim?

2. Judging by the characteristics of the trees, what time of year do you think the picture was taken over Central Park in Manhattan?

3. John Muir described a few trees growing on the top of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley when he visited there in the mid-1800s. Are there any trees still growing on the top of Half Dome?

4. The Tigris River flows through central Baghdad. Is there any vegetation growing on the islands and sand berms in the middle and on the edges of this river?

5. You’re considering accepting a plant biologist job that would require you to survey the vegetation on the shores of Prince William Sound immediately outside of the small town of Valdez, Alaska. Are you going to be working in the trees or in more open vegetation?

These questions are, of course, very specific to the subject matter I teach in my class, but Google Earth is a fun way to explore just about any subject, from history to English. It's a great tool for scientists, academics, and educators alike. Check out the case study or my webpage to learn more. And be sure to check back tomorrow for answers to see if you made the grade!