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 Virtual Earths let researchers "mash up" data

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Date posted: 07/05/2007

The freely available global mapping software proliferating the Internet ? Google Earth in the main ? is being eagerly adopted by researchers from a variety of fields as the most effective way to compare geographic data.

The main attraction of Google Earth is that it is relatively simple to create files that overlay information onto the globe. But there are several other world mapping programs available including NASA's World Wind, Virtual Earth, from Microsoft, and other more specialist ones.

"[Scientists] tend to work in 2D with papers and charts, in ways that aren't always compatible," says Jon Blower at the University of Reading in the UK. "For example, polar scientists and people working in the tropics use different [3D] map projections."

Eventually, Blower hopes to foster a community of software developers willing to help researchers translate their scientific data into formats accepted by virtual globe programs. At a meeting in Cambridge, UK, last month Blower demonstrated how Google Earth could be used to map the path taken by hurricane Katrina in August 2005, as it moved inland from the Atlantic Ocean, at the same time as data representing sea's surface temperatures.

This highlighted the hurricane's ocean-cooling effect, he says. "You can see the ocean surface cool as the wind from Katrina draws up deeper, colder water," Blower explains. "Virtual globes really come into their own for integrating data from different sources."

And John Bailey at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, US, is monitoring active volcanoes on Google Earth by combining satellite and ground sensor data. It is even possible to display ash plumes emerging from a volcano in 3D ? a video shows a cloud of ash produced by the Cleveland Volcano in Alaska, in February 2006.

"You can imagine superimposing aircraft routes on that to quickly understand the possible impact of a cloud," Blower says. "This is a great use of Google Earth."

Earth modelling software can also sometimes help identify mistakes in large and complicated quantities of data, adds Roy Lowry at the British Oceanographic Data Centre. "Using Google Earth we can immediately see if something is sensible, or has likely been recorded in the wrong place," he told New Scientist.

Blower also bemoans the fact that Google Earth does not yet let researcher put things below sea level. "We'd like to have proper sea floor topology," he says.

See the full Story via external site: www.newscientisttech.com

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