The Geopolitics of Google Earth

It's not just for busting swimming pool cheats.


It’s way beyond crop circles, blood-red lakes in Iraq, and half-hidden UFOs. Officials from Greece to New York to Switzerland are using the free satellite images to find tax cheats with undeclared swimming pools and illegal pot plantations. Armchair cartographers are also getting in on the game, uncovering — and creating — political minefields. 


Where: Huangyangtan, Ningxia Hui, China

What: In June 2006, a man in Germany using the handle “KenGrok” logged on to the Google Earth Community page and asked for help in identifying an unusual land formation he had found in a desert near the city of Yingchuan in central China. In his post, he provided coordinates and described an enormous model landscape outside a military base with “mountain ranges, complete with lakes and snow-capped peaks.” But what was it, he wondered?

Check the borders, suggested “stiuskr,” a fellow Google Earth fan boy. Two weeks later, KenGrok found what he was looking for: Aksai Chin, a disputed border region of Kashmir claimed by both India and China, over which they fought a war in 1962. The Chinese military appeared to have constructed a 500:1 scale model of the region on the base. Confronted with satellite evidence of the accurate model, Chinese officials denied that it was a replica of Aksai Chin, saying only that it was a tank-training center. That may be, but given its close resemblance to the disputed area, it’s still worth wondering what those tanks are training for.


Where: Military installations

What: With the plethora of commercial “remote sensing” satellite images available to the common public, military officials and government agencies have become wary about the potential for terrorists and enemies to use the technology for pinpointing attacks on installations and areas of strategic significance. Even a quick look at Baghdad’s Green Zone or the Bagram Air Base is revealing; it’s not hard to see how this information could be useful for insurgents.

Thus, government officials often request that commercial imagery black out, pixelate, or cleverly obscure key sites. Take a look at this clumsily altered murky blot in Siberia, or the slick camouflage applied to the U.S. Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy. Area 51, the secret U.S. air base in the Nevada desert, however, remains unobscured for UFO theorists to analyze to their hearts’ content.


Where: North Korea

What: No longer is the world of spy satellites and orbital reconnaissance the sole domain of the U.S. National Security Agency and the CIA. From the comfort of one’s living room, amateur sleuths have trained their eyes on the cloistered North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, discovering everything from nuclear sites to airbases, surface-to-air missile batteries to secret underground bunkers. A few years ago, Google Earth images revealed North Korean submarines — the existence of which Pyongyang had long denied — neatly lined up along the country’s western coast. This begs the question: why would such a notoriously secret regime leave its vast array of military hardware out in the open, in plain view of commercial mapping satellites?

Military analysts suggest it might be a form of deterrence, a show of strength to anyone watching. Whether there’s fuel enough for the hundreds of jets spotted on North Korean airfields is another matter. As for these mansions around an artificial lake, one can only speculate as to the owners … but it’s a bit odd that the roof of the house on the northwestern shore has huge numbers that clearly show the birth dates of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il.

North Korea watchers have been aided in their task by Curtis Melvin, a George Mason University doctoral candidate who, with a legion of volunteers, has created the world’s most authoritative annotated map of the Hermit Kingdom using Google Earth. In 2008, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) used Melvin’s maps of North Korean prison camps in a presentation on the Senate floor, saying, “Google has made a witness of all of us. We can no longer deny these things exist.”


Where: Sudan

What: In 2007, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched a project in conjunction with Google to map the ongoing destruction of homes and villages in western Sudan. Called “Crisis in Darfur,” it’s a special layer within Google Earth that augments satellite images with pinpoints of towns and hamlets that have been burned, information and locations of internally-displaced-persons camps, and pictures and testimonies from survivors and international NGOs. The hope is that the collected evidence will refute the Sudanese government’s denials that mass killings have taken place. “We need [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir and other perpetrators to know they are being watched,” said Daowd Salih, a Darfuri former German Red Cross official, at the project’s launch.

Google Earth generally only updates satellite images every couple of years, but users can view earlier images to see the extent of the damage and the displacement of civilians in Darfur. In 2009, the project — in conjunction with the U.S. State Department  — had mapped 3,300 villages burned by government forces or janjaweed militants.


Where: China-Vietnam border

What: Five years ago, when Google Earth first launched on the world’s desktop computers, it was a novelty people used to find their childhood home or spot naked sunbathers. But with each iteration, the technology and maps have become increasingly accurate, embroiling governments in spats over misplaced borders and mislabeled places that some fear could spark conflict. And it’s not only arguments over whether the Persian Gulf should be labeled the Arabian Gulf (Iranians consider the latter, a pan-Arab moniker of the 1960s, an insult to their illustrious history).

In February, Google recently found itself embroiled in a tense battle of wills between Thailand and Cambodia over the exact location of the long-contested, French-drawn, colonial-era border that runs through the Preah Vihear Temple complex. Google has since resolved the issue with more accurate borders and dotted lines that identify places where boundaries are “disputed,” but controversies — and screw-ups — remain an issue. In July, Google accidentally placed a handful of Vietnamese villages within China’s borders (above), prompting a stern rebuke from the government in Hanoi.


Where: Worldwide

What: Satellite images from the NASA/USGS Landsat and Terra programs have long been offered to scientists for terrain mapping, infrared Earth monitoring, and spectroradiometry. These images have starkly illustrated Arctic warming patterns, receding glaciers in the Alps, deforestation in the Amazon basin, and the BP oil spill.

Now Google Earth is taking it a step further, creating an array of prediction models which were used by climate-change campaigners in the run-up to last year’s Copenhagen climate summit. The simulator uses models based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s predictions to visualize the effects of global warming through the year 2100. A new series of nightmare scenarios have just been released by British government scientists, who are using the program to illustrate the effects of deforestation, rising sea levels, and increasing urbanization over time.

As small islands begin to disappear due to rising oceans, Google Earth has also given places like the now-disappeared Cartaret Atoll, the first inhabited island to be swallowed up by the seas, something of a swan song. The island was still visible to Google Earth users for a time before updated images were available. Now, it’s lost beneath the waves forever.  

All images from Google Earth

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