The Earth, Google Style
Google Earth compiles images from various sources, from satellites in geosynchronous orbit that snap low-resolution photos from tens of thousands of miles above Earth, to satellites closer to Earth that capture higher-resolution shots and even aerial photos taken from airplanes, kites, drones and even balloons. The imagery is available to anyone who downloads the software, and archaeologists have taken advantage of the rich resource.
From a boneyard of military planes, to a polka-dot pattern created by ants, to mysterious structures etched into the Gobi Desert and even a phantom island in the South Pacific, Google Earth brings some wacky places to light. Here's a look at some of the strangest.
(Originally published on LiveScience on April 18, 2013.)
Google Earth has spied some old artistry etched into the surface of the planet, including wheel-shaped structures that may date back some 8,500 years, making them older than Peru's geoglyphs called Nazca Lines. Some of these spoked designs that dot Jordan's Azraq Oasis seem to be positioned in a way that aligns with sunrise on the winter solstice. A team of scientists with the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME) have been investigating wheel structures (also called "works of the old men") with satellite imagery available through Google Earth. The wheels vary in their design, with some showing spokes that radiate from the center, others with just one or two bars rather than spokes and still others not circular at all and instead shaped like squares, rectangles or triangles, the researchers have found.
The wheels seen in this image are in the Azraq Oasis and have spokes with a southeast-northwest orientation, possibly aligning with the winter solstice sunrise. [See More Images of the Wheel Structures of the Mideast]
In an obituary for the island published in April 2013, the researchers explained why the phantom landmass had been included on some maps for more than a century, pointing to some human errors and a possible pumice raft.
Many online comments linked the site with devil worship, nefarious religious sects or denizens of the underworld. Alas, the pentagram turns out to be the outline of a park made in the form of a star; the star is marked by roadways that are now lined with trees, making the star shape even more distinct in aerial photos.
Abandoned launch sites
Now, David Tewksbury, a GIS (geographic information system) specialist at Hamilton College in New York, hopes to preserve a visual record of the abandon Nike missile launch sites before they vanish — either as a result of being reclaimed by nature, repurposed by the military or redeveloped. His plan is to build a geo-referenced database so that anyone can research the Nike missile sites through Google Earth.
Here, one of those sites, the Oahu Defense Area in Hawaii, shown in 1968. The site was once equipped with missiles in open air with embankments between paired launch sites.
Riddled with holes
"It looks like the surface of the moon," Emma Cunliffe, an archaeology researcher at Durham University in England, who has published a report documenting archeological damage in Syria, told Live Science in 2013. "In eight months, the looted area exceeded the total excavated area."
Lake of blood?
Wild View Elephants
Secret military base?
Some speculated the buildings at the site were part of a secret military base. But with further analysis, Stefan Geens, a technologist and geospatial blogger who has spent months in that part of China, said the site was likely part of a major manufacturing or economic center. [See More Images of the Mysterious Chinese Structures]
One structure in the complex did somewhat resemble a helicopter testing area, analysts said there's no reason it would necessarily be linked to military activities. Furthermore, the site is not ideal for a secret military base, since it's relatively close to a major population area and no towers or barriers were spotted, said Stuart Hamilton, the GIS program director at the Center for Geospatial Analysis at the College of William and Mary.