Google Earth Geography 101

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Google Earth Geography 101

Xah Lee, 2006-11-24, 2010-07-25

If you don't have already, you should download Google Earth. It's free.

Google earth is a virtual globe, that you can rotate and navigate about to any location on earth. Then, typically, for each city, there are hundreds of photos, videos, articles, statistics, that you can view.

10 years ago, i have the wish that there's some web database that you can search for any city in the world and immediately see many photos of the place. It is a reality today with Google Earth and Google Map (and to lesser degree other competitors).

The Tech of Google Earth

One way to judge the technology level of a civilization is to look at their maps. For us, Google Earth is a fair Representative. Also, if we can choose only one single software to represent the state of art in software, i'd say Google Earth is a good candidate. The major technologies underlies it directly or indirectly includes: massive scale networking, satellite communication system (GPS), photography tech (optics), 3D (modeling/rendering/graphics) tech, database tech, sundry other software tech (font, UI), ... among others.

To have something like Google Earth (GE), indirectly represents a large part of all human technology. For example, GE relies on photos taken from satellite as well as planes and cars. And actually, a satellite system, of many satellites, and GPS. This by itself involves sending autonomous machines to fly in a orbit around earth. And that involves just about all sciences and engineering of this century. Also, GE contains database of volcanoes, sea floor maps, etc. Take the sea floor example. It requires submarines, and other advanced understanding such as sonar for sound.

google earth

Earth from Google Earth.


Navigation can be done by keyboard or mouse.

For the Lazy

  • Zoom = mouse wheel. Double click to auto-zoom-in.
  • Rotate earth = hold left button then move mouse. Release button while still moving mouse (“throw”) to start automatic moving.
  • Align North = hold right button then move mouse left/right.
  • Smart Tilt+Zoom = hold right button then move mouse up/down.

By Keyboard

  • Zoom = PageUp/PageDown.
  • Rotate earth = Arrow keys.
  • Align North = Hold down Shift keys then press left/right Arrow Keys.
  • Tilt = Hold down Shift keys then press up/down Arrow Keys.

Holding down Alt before doing the above will make the steps smaller.

For Control Freaks

  • Align North = hold middle button then move mouse left/right.
  • Tilt = hold middle button then move mouse up/down.

If you tilted over the horizon and started to see the sky and can't get back to earth, you can “reset” the view by just holding right button than move mouse up until you see the earth.

  • Holding Ctrl and press up/down arrow will tilt your camera.
  • Holding Ctrl and press left/right arrow will rotate your camera. (around a axis from earth center to your camera)


The following are some distances in numbers, so that, you get a sense of how far.

Google Earth for History, Literature, Arts

Google Earth is not just for education or understanding geography. It has many uses, by educators/learners, for directions, for sight seeing travel planning, for hike planning, ... but i use it much for understanding culture, literature, arts. Here's some example of what i use it for.

One most obvious is for annotation of travelogs. e.g. Las Vegas Travelog, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Reno 2006.

I also use it for annotation of photography of architectures. When showing a gallery of beautiful buildings, it is nice to be able to get a sense of the location. All those elaborate churches, ancient temples, castles... where are they? See: Beautiful Architectures.

I also use it for annotation in literature. For example, in reading Gulliver's Travels, it mentions tens of actual places (often in allusion to historical events as satire). To understand it well, you really have to know where these places are. So, in annotations, i put Google Earth links to the location, for myself and my readers. See: Gulliver's Travels.

Another examples of heavy use Google Earth in literature, is when i read The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade by Edgar Allan Poe. It mentioned many locations of natural wonder or man-made wonder. See: The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.

When reading history, literature, for example, when you read about Trojan War of Greek mythology, about a war over the most beautiful woman, at the city Troy, do you want to know where is Troy? And, nearby is the island Lesbos, famous because the word lesbian is derived from it.

When i watch movies, usually i go read about the movie before or after having watched it, as a hobby of learning. For example, the movie District 9. The story is about a alien spaceship that appeared in Johannesburg, South Africa. The movie is also shot there. The movie features lots of black people and local scenes. From a cultural perspective, the movie gives you a glimpse of what a large city in south africa is like.

For a whole collection of my Google Earth files, see: Google Earth Files at

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