Space & Innovation

App Tells You What Earth Sounds Like Today

A rainforest soundscaper's free smartphone application invites citizens worldwide to record snippets of local sound on Earth Day. Continue reading →

If you're planning on taking a virtual tour of the planet for Earth Day, a new app for citizen scientists could provide the soundtrack.

Google Maps Tries To Save the Planet: Photos

The app was originated by Purdue University landscape ecology professor Bryan Pijanowski, a self-described "rainforest soundscaper." His goal is to get as many smartphone-wielding people around the world as possible to record snippets of local sound, answer short questions about how they feel and upload it for Earth Day. Hat tip Wired's Brandon Keim.

Pijanowski's request isn't just a cool way to eavesdrop on ambient sound around the world - there's also scientific component. He usually works in remote deserts and rainforests. A more expansive database will help him better understand how ecosystems are faring worldwide. "We should get a sense of whether and how we're making this a noisier planet, which I think we're doing," he told Wired.

This Sound Chamber Could Kill You

The Soundscape Recorder app is free for Apple and Android devices, but it does require the latest operating system - at least it did for me. Fortunately it's all about recording sound, and not something like smell or taste. I'll leave those aspects of Earth Day to my imagination.

Photo: Purdue University professor Bryan Pijanowski with sound equipment in the jungle. His app invites citizen scientists worldwide to record sound nearby for Earth Day. Credit: Global Soundscapes, YouTube.

April 20, 2012

-- After Google released Google Earth in 2005, outreach manager Rebecca Moore considered how the virtual globe, map and geographical information could be used to make the planet a better place. Her idea crystallized into Google Earth Outreach and became formalized in 2007. The outreach project awards grants to nonprofits and public benefit organizations to tell their stories using Google Earth and Google Maps. Since then, more than 2,000 organizations have received funds from the program. In recent years, upwards of $300,000 was awarded to a number of recipients, including those that combine crowd-sourcing and mapping technology to help the world. Here’s a tour of 10 Google Earth Outreach projects:

Street View for the Amazon Google Street View lets viewers jump right into their destinations by showing the surroundings from the asphalt to the sky. In 2009, the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation and improving the lives of people in protected areas of the Amazon, approached Google Earth Outreach about creating a "river view" and "forest view" for the area. That way people around the world could see what needed to be protected for themselves. Last year, Google Earth Outreach and Google Street View teams met with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation at the Rio Negro Reserve. They used a rugged trike outfitted with the Street View camera, strapping the trike to a boat for river views and then pedaling it through local communities for "street" views. Last month, more than 2,000 images showing 360-degree views from the collaboration were unveiled in Google Maps here.

Reefs at Risk Coral reefs aren't just a pretty tourist attraction. They're also home to nearly a quarter of all marine species and crucial to fish populations. The majority of these undersea habitats are being threatened by destructive fishing practices, coastal development, pollution, and changing environmental conditions. The World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank, has been using geographic information system models since 1998 to map global coral reef threats. They recently received a Google Earth Outreach developer grant to take their knowledge base to the next level. By combining detailed data sets, maps and reports with Google Earth technology, WRI was able to bring reefs at risk to life, showing them region-by-region worldwide. Dynamic global maps are part of the Reefs at Risk Revisited project. Taking the virtual tour of the reefs around the world brings threats to these hidden underwater homes to light.

Coal Mining Exposed When 10,000 acres of a mountaintop is exploded into rubble in order to mine coal, the scale of destruction might not resonate with the average person. So the organizations Appalachian Voices and the Alliance of Appalachia turned to Google Earth. For their project, National Memorial for the Mountains, the group superimposes mining sites onto satellites maps of U.S. cities. In this example, the Hobet mining complex in West Virginia is shown as a red imprint that covers most of Manhattan. From the air, scarred landscapes like this are unforgettable. Google Earth users can get a similar experience by seeing before and after overlays as well as interactive maps of mine sites." Mountaintop removal uses explosives to access coal deposits, avoiding the need for underground workers while accelerating the mining process. It's irreversible, fills streams and valleys with rubble, pollutes water sources, and has been linked to health problems in local communities, according to Appalachian Voices. About 4 percent of the nation's energy comes from this coal, a figure the organization says could be replaced by renewable energy.

Tracking Sea Turtle Migration Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting endangered sea turtles, wanted to get local students on the Caribbean island more involved in understanding nesting and migration. The group outfitted a local female Hawksbill sea turtle named Jklynn with a satellite transmitter for her annual migration. With a hand from Google Maps technology, the students could see Jklynn's path. The organization also created a game called the Great Migration. The object of the game was to predict where the sea turtle would return after nesting on the island. The winner, Keval Bissessar, came within about 22 miles of Jklynn's actual destination -- pretty good considering that previously tracked sea turtles have gone all over the Caribbean -- and won a new smartphone and a year's worth of service.

Cataloging Life How can we save what we've never heard of? The organization Encyclopedia of Life or EOL seeks aims to gather, generate and share knowledge about all life on Earth in an open, free and trustworthy digital repository. Working with Atlantic Public Media, EOL created a series called "One Species At a Time" to introduce us to unique species on land and in the sea. Each episode is a Google Earth tour. One that features hardy birds called Arctic terns shows their annual migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Greenland Institute of Natural Resources researcher Carsten Egevang described the challenging process of tagging the birds with tiny trackers, braving harsh weather and pecks to the head. Egevang tracked the birds as they made their way south, with some taking very different routes along continental coastlines. The distance is so great that each of the small terns will fly what amounts to three round trips to the Moon in its lifetime.

Irresponsible Logging When Google Earth outreach manager Rebecca Moore and her neighbors in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California received a black and white map showing a logging plan in 2005, many were confused. The San Jose Water Company's plan was to log more than 1,000 acres around the highway, arguing that would reduce the fire risk around watershed areas. Moore, a member of the community group Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging or NAIL, decided to create a realistic visualization in Google Earth. She used digital data from the county planning department and more than 700 photos taken from a helicopter flight over the area. Moore's virtual flyover showed the proposed logging plan in red, highlighting old-growth trees that would be cut as well as the logging operation's proximity to specific schools, playgrounds and communities. When residents saw Moore's presentation, the plan started receiving intense scrutiny and Al Gore even weighed in against it. In 2007, the California Department of Forestry ruled the logging application "ineligible," marking victory for NAIL. Since then, Google Earth has been used similarly in other forest preservation campaigns.

Environmental Hot Spots Hearing about an enormous that's in danger of drying up is one thing. Watching its deep green edges recede decade by decade in Google Earth is another. Years of diversion for irrigation caused the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to go from being one of the world's largest lakes to being called one of the planet's worst environmental disasters by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The United Nations Environment Program or UNEP monitors environmental hot spots like the Aral Sea and publishes an Atlas with time-sequence satellite photos showing drastic changes to those areas. Suddenly abstractions became pressing and clear to readers. UNEP calls its "Atlas of Our Changing Environment" the program's most profitable publication ever. In partnership with Google Earth, UNEP has added its extensive library of atlas photos to more than 100 sites worldwide. Since then, the Atlas has become one of the most popular features in the Google application. "These satellite pictures are a wake-up call to all of us," UNEP executive director Achim Steiner told the public when the partnership first formed.

Saving Elephants Trading ivory has been banned but the high price and lure of elephant tusks makes the animals a constant target. To stay ahead of poachers, the nonprofit group Save the Elephants outfits elephants in Kenya with GPS collars that track their movements. "We've been using Google Earth to as a very easy way to find out what our elephants are up to and where they're going," Save the Elephants founder Ian Douglas-Hamilton said in a video about the organization's use of the mapping technology. With the collars and maps, they can see the elephants moving in real time against high-definition satellite images. When one of the tracked elephants stops moving, the organization sends a Google Earth file to the Kenya Wildlife Service so they can investigate. Tracking the elephants has also illuminated their migration movements, and led to the construction of an overpass to let them pass safely from one area in the country to another.

Restoring Parks Crissy Field, a large and flat public park in San Francisco, affords a panoramic view of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the hilly Marin Headlands behind it. Before the field became an iconic grassy stretch for bikers, joggers and visitors, this area was unrecognizable. For the 10-year anniversary of Crissy Field's restoration, the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy created a tour in Google Earth showing how the urban park reached its current accessible state. Originally a tidal marsh, the area was filled in for auto racing in 1915 and then used as an airfield until 1936. The field slowly fell into disuse and became a local dumping ground. In 1972, the U.S. National Park Service took over the tire- and waste-strewn stretch. Following an effort led by the Conservancy and the Park Service that involved numerous volunteer hours and removing tons of hazardous materials, Crissy Field re-opened to the public in 2001. To celebrate this achievement, virtual visitors can take a Google Earth tour.

Adopt a Prairie Nearly 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, west of Galveston, a coastal prairie in Texas has become living history. Unplowed and largely unaltered by humans, Nash Prairie encompasses 400 acres of pristine land. Hundreds of plants, including a type of grass thought to have gone extinct, and more than 100 bird species flourish here. Millions of acres just like this used to exist from Texas to Louisiana, but they are long gone. Preserved first by socialite-turned-rancher Kittie Nash Groce and then by neighboring St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Columbia, Tex., the prairie is now being bought by the Nature Conservancy to continue protecting it. The organization's Adopt an Acre program offers the public a way to help save the land. In exchange for a $50 donation, an acre in Nash Prairie is preserved in that person's name or a name of their choosing. Through Google Earth, conservationists can zoom into the area to learn about each acre and even meet donor "neighbors." Pick your own here.