Google Ocean: Really?

Reports circulating in the blogosphere (summarized at Ogle Earth) indicate that Google will make a big Earth-related announcement on February 2 at the Cal Academy in San Francisco. These reports say that oceanographer Sylvia Earle will top a list of luminaries including Al Gore and some of the bigwigs from Google. Earle’s presence may mean that the long-awaited Google Ocean update is coming soon.

Beyond the lineup at the event, I think the location of the announcement may be significant. The California Academy of Sciences’ new Renzo Piano-designed building not only looks cool and has a LEED Platinum rating, but it’s designed to hold a museum that integrates the sky, land, and oceans. Could the museum’s design have inspired the design of the hypothetical Google Ocean? I hope so.

So: beyond updated ocean floor imagery, what, exactly, would Google Ocean be? Stefan Geens at Ogle Earth speculates:

…Considering how a combined land and ocean dataset might be problematic from a realism perspective for Google Earth (after all, the oceans aren’t empty), it could well make sense to add another separate dataset, in addition to Google Sky and Google Earth. You could then switch between Google Earth and Google Ocean for a certain view, much as you can now switch to Google Sky.

From an environmental perspective, I’m not sure that the separate-view idea makes a whole lot of sense. Say you were interested in protecting coral reefs, which are not only in danger from whole-ocean problems (e.g. acidification) but also from harmful fishing practices (with dynamite and cyanide) and local pollution (e.g. eutrophication).  If you wanted to advocate for the protection of a particular reef, you’d want to show the locations of undersea coral reefs alongside the land-surface locations of fishing operations, sewage outfalls, etc. Google has made a point of highlighting environmental advocacy efforts like this on land  – see, for example, what Rebecca Moore and NAIL did for logging, or the Appalachian Mountaintop Removal layer in Google Earth.

Being able to see both land and sea synoptically makes scientific sense: A marine geologist might want to look at the ridges and trenches of the ocean floor juxtaposed against the mountains and coastlines of the continents. A coastal engineer might want to look at shore protection at the same time he/she sees what’s on the ocean bottom just offshore. Ecological interactions between land and sea, for example in wetlands, can be pretty important. A lot of Google Earth’s (and virtual globes’, and GISs’) allure to the scientific community stems from the ability to overlay geographic information from a variety of disciplines. It seems to me that, if the oceans were only visible separately from the land (as Google Sky is), we’d lose this ability. Given the interactions between Googlers and scientists at AGU, I think the Google geo team is smarter than that.

The location of the February 2 announcement, then, may be a clue to how Google Ocean might look. I think – I hope, at least – that users will be able to “dive into” Google Ocean from the standard Google Earth view rather than view Ocean separately from Earth. The exhibits at the Cal Academy let visitors do this to a certain extent. One of the highlights of the Cal Academy’s new building is a huge coral reef tank, which you can see from above or from reef-level. Above the reef tank, huge banks of floodlights provide the light necessary for coral growth. Not only do the lights mimic sunlight, but they surround the dome of the planetarium – two links between sea and sky right there. I’m imagining a photo op with Googlers, oceanographers, and environmentalists in front of the coral reef tank.

The museum’s design mimics Google Earth in other ways. On the other side of the building, the rainforest exhibit lets visitors climb from the top of the rainforest canopy to beneath the flooded forest roots. My photo on the “About” page was taken in a glass tunnel below the flooded rainforest exhibit. Again, the museum’s model integrates different levels of Earth’s  environment.

So here’s what I’m hoping for on February 2:

  1. An ocean that you can dive into from the standard view of Google Earth
  2. Earth features visible from under the ocean and vice-versa.
  3. A realistic ocean:
    1. Real ocean floor topography
    2. Marine layers that can be turned on and off
    3. Ocean surface imagery that can be made transparent/translucent
    4. Overlays, placemarks, and images that can be placed at depths below sea level and viewed “under sea”

The new Cal Academy building is way cool, by the way. You should go.