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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Exploring Google Earth

Four weeks ago, Brian Fisher was flying in a helicopter high over the jungles of Madagascar. Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences and Ph.D. graduate of UC Davis, is working to take pictures of all ant species on Earth. There are about 14,000 described species of ants, so Fisher’s got a huge task ahead of him.

During this fateful helicopter ride, a sharp turn sent Fisher’s backpack plummeting down into a canyon. He lost his insect specimens, notes, money and car keys, but not his guides for exploration: Google Earth images. A high-tech kind of trailblazer, Fisher’s team relies on high-resolution images from Google Earth to plan trips.

“They were valuable for finding little pockets of richness that you wouldn’t have found on your own,” Fisher said.

Madagascar has been 90 percent deforested, so Fisher’s previous trips to collect insects on the island had been frustrating.

“Imagine going to a location and not knowing where the forest is,” Fisher said.

Thanks to Google Earth, a service released by Google Inc. in 2005, Fisher found five new species of ants just last month.

I can see the value of high-resolution imaging of jungles and mountains, but filling in all the blank spots on the map also makes me wonder if we still have a frontier. Do we still look at the world and see mysteries? Humans used to draw monsters on the map. They’d plot Gardens of Eden and Fountains of Youth. The world was an adventure.

In his 2009 book The Lost City of Z, David Grann writes about Percy Harrison Fawcett – a British explorer who set out into the Amazon rainforest in the early twentieth 20th century in search of El Dorado-like city.

“Fawcett was considered the last of the individualist explorers – those ventured into the blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose,” writes Grann.

Grann writes that the mapping of our planet was “one of the most incredible feats of humankind.”

I agree.

In the days before planes or satellites humans spent hundreds of years and millions of dollars to make maps. People died just to map the world. Even Fawcett, machete-wielding explorer extraordinaire, met his end in the Amazon. His final resting place remains one of those blank spots on the map.

While writing his book, Grann traces the Fawcett’s mysterious trail. As he plans his trip, Grann shows his wife the Amazon on Google Earth.

“What was once a blank spot on the map was now visible in an instant,” Grann writes.

Grann clearly thinks the age of cartography is over, but was Fawcett really the last frontiersman? Fisher doesn’t think so.

“I think actually what [Google Earth] does is give you a new sense of discovery just exploring these maps,” Fisher said. “I really think it’s going to inspire a whole wave of exploration.”

Without Google Earth, Fisher said he would never have found a forested chunk of Madagascar he called a “lost world.” The spot was a 55-meter-deep hole in the ground, an oasis of jungle surrounded by a destroyed ecosystem.

“That was just like a circle of green on the map,” Fisher said.

For Fisher, exploration comes in two stages. There’s the map-making (thanks, Google) and then the actual investigation of the territory. Google Earth shows the jungle but not Fisher’s ants.

But that’s going to change too. When he started using Google Earth, Fisher contacted Google hoping to use the program to plot the locations of biological data worldwide. Today, Fisher works on AntWeb, a site that allows biologists to locate ants by thumbnail images on Google Earth. Every year, traveling scientists add more data.

Next on Fisher’s wish list are more high-resolution images of the tropics. In a blog post during his travels Fisher jokingly requested that Google Earth fill in more chunks of Madagascar – and Google responded.

“In fact, Google Earth wrote me and said ‘let us know where you’re going for your next trip,'” Fisher said.

There are plenty of mysteries still out there. With Google Earth, we’ve got a new generation of explorers.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT gets lost even when she’s got a map. She would not survive in the wild. Contact Madeline at science@theaggie.org.

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