How to go back in time on Google Earth

Google Maps is a nifty tool we all rely on for navigating unknown streets, thanks to its unmatched features and accuracy. While Maps functions well on the ground level, Google Earth works on a much grander scale, and it’s packed with similarly impressive features. It has mapped our planet with the kind of details that simply aren’t accessible on any other consumer-facing tool. The best part about Google Earth is that you can go back in time and see how a place has changed over time. Historical imagery on Google Earth is a powerful tool that you can use for a number of things, and this is how you can make full use of it.

How to go back in time on Google Earth for desktop

Google Earth’s historical imagery tool combines data from a bunch of sources to give you a look at a particular area going as far back as the 1930s. However, you can use the feature only on the desktop app, which may look a bit dated, but it has everything you require and then some. Here’s what you need to do.

  1. Visit this link to download Google Earth Pro for your computer. Click on Download Earth Pro on Desktop, agree to Google’s terms, and it will start downloading the appropriate app for your computer’s OS. When done, install the app.
  2. Open the Google Earth Pro app and look for the search bar in the left pane after dismissing the introduction message. Punch in the location you want to see older images for and hit Search. The app will take you straight to that place with a nice animation.
  3. In the top toolbar, select the clock icon, which reads Show historical imagery. Alternatively, you can use the app menu on a Mac to find the Historical Imagery option under View.
  4. Using either way, a scrollable date selector will appear over the map in the top left corner. You can scroll through the time, and the map image will change according to the year selected.

If the Google Earth website doesn’t open or work as intended for you on a desktop browser, try using Google Chrome, which works best with Google Earth.

In the example screenshots above, the aerial photos of Dubai’s dramatically changing coastline go back only until ’84. But for some places, it can even date back to the 70s and even the 30s. Though you should expect those images not to be as sharp and clear as modern satellite snaps. And there’s a good chance that such archival images are available only for a small portion of a town, requiring you to further zoom in for a better look.

How to use Timelapse on Google Earth for web

Timelapse on Google Earth is a more dramatized version of its historical imagery tool, with high-quality satellite images handpicked for certain locations. To give you a tour of sorts through these stories, Google Earth has them curated under different themes, like shrinking ice caps and growing urban sprawl.

With a lot of animation, an automatic time slider, and the accompanying contextual information, Timelapse is far more intuitive. And you don’t need to download any app to use it either.

  1. Open the Google Earth website and go to Voyager using the helm icon on the left sidebar.
  2. Under Nature, scroll down to Timelapse in Google Earth, and click on it. It will instantly take you to one of the preset places and start the animated timelapse mode.
  3. In the right pane, you get the option to pause the timelapse animation and a year selector to jump between times manually.
  4. Below that time bar, a section lists Stories with five themes, each with over half a dozen places you can visit virtually. Click on one of them to get started.
  5. On the next screen, you can use the arrows on the same right pane to scroll through all the stories one by one.

Not all places included here will have timelapse enabled and may only give you a simple photograph and some information about the geography.

You can also use the Featured Locations section right next to Stories to access an even larger collection of Timelapses going all the way back to 1984. This selection ranges from deforestation and mining to natural disasters and infrastructure.

Google Earth’s Timelapse on the mobile app

Timelapse is also available on Google Earth’s Android app. Just tap on the helm icon on the home page, and you’ll enter the Voyager mode. From here, the process is pretty much identical to what you need to do on the website.

Since the historical imagery tool isn’t available on the mobile app, Timelapse is the only way to dive into the archival shots. Google has made Timelapse a fun experience to give you a guided tour of the places that have seen the most noticeable changes. And given it’s a curated trip, the images are always top quality, without any inconsistencies.

How to go back in time on Google Maps

While the historical imagery tool on Google Earth is quite capable, Google Maps, too, has a few tricks up its sleeve. Google has been recording our streets for well over a decade now, giving it enough data to show us how a place has really changed on the ground. This is how you can access it.

  1. Just drop that little yellow Street View guy (Pegman) on a road that has street view available.
  2. Click on the clock icon in the top left corner where the street name is displayed.

  3. Doing this will show a small preview of the same location from the year selected on the slider bar. Select a year that you want to compare the current view with.
  4. Use the zoom button to display the image on the main screen for a better view.

If the area you’re looking at has been mapped for Street View only recently, you probably won’t find a timelapse tool for that location just yet. But you can still use it for other places. Maps’ phone app got this feature last month, but, unfortunately, Google hasn’t enabled it for everyone yet.

Explore the planet with a bird’s-eye view

No matter what you’re using Google Earth for, it is sure to leave you amazed. Scrubbing through several decades of satellite images in a matter of seconds gives a different perspective of the very places we’ve lived in for years. Be it watching your own city grow from being a little town or the rapidly shrinking Amazon rainforests, it is this kind of slow-footed change that Google Earth’s historical imagery is cut out for.

The Voyager section is loaded with fascinating guided tours—showing you what the satellites see from far above, the massive craters on earth’s surface perfectly rendered in 3D, and a whole lot more. It’s easy to spend an entire day gaping at those beautiful images.

And if you manage to exhaust everything in there, you can head to Google Maps and start exploring the solar system to learn about Jupiter’s various moons and a couple of little-known dwarf planets not too far from earth.

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