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.)
Scientists discovered more than 50 geoglyphs across northern Kazakhstan in Central Asia, including this swastika-shaped design. Though the swastika symbol was created from timber, many of the geoglyphs were made of earthen mounds. The geoglyphs seem to date back 2,000 years. At the time, swastikas were not uncommon across Europe and Asia and were not of course affiliated with any political beliefs. [Read more about the swastika geoglyphs and other Kazakhstan designs]
This Google Earth image is an eye-full and a mouthful, as it's an island-in-a-lake-on-an-island-in-a-lake-on-an-island. Yes, Google Earth captured this image showing a tiny island that resides inside a crater lake on an island called Volcano Island in a lake called Lake Taal on the Philippine island of Luzon. For years apparently, this phenomenon was thought to be the largest of its kind spied by Google Earth. However, it turns out that accolade goes to a 4-acre spit of land in northern Canada where no human has likely stepped foot.
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]
One type of these "wheels" in the Middle East looks like a bull's-eye, with three triangles pointing toward the eye and small piles of stones leading from the triangles toward the bull's-eye wheel. David Kennedy, of the University of Western Australia, who co-directs the project, calls it "a central bull's-eye tomb with, in this case, three triangles each with at least a part of a connecting line of stone heaps running to the center."
This image from Google Earth shows an anomaly that some believe could be an unexcavated pyramid. Dozens of anomalies in Egypt have been detected using Google Earth in the past five years; however, there is a debate as to whether they represent natural features or artificial structures. More excavations are needed, but the security and economic situation in Egypt has limited the number and size of excavations.
Eroded Egyptian pyramids or geologic features?
In 2012, a group of Australian researchers "undiscovered" an island the size of Manhattan in the South Pacific. A mysterious place called Sandy Island had popped up on maps, northwest of New Caledonia. It even showed up as a black polygon on Google Earth. But when scientists sailed there in November 2012, they found open water instead of solid ground.
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.
On the wind-blown steppes of central Asia, in an isolated corner of Kazakhstan, there's a large pentagram, measuring roughly 1,200 feet (366 meters) in diameter, etched into Earth's surface. The five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, located on the southern shore of the Upper Tobol Reservoir, shows up vividly on Google Maps, the online version of the more detailed Google Earth.
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
Nike missiles, which were supersonic surface-to-air missiles, sat ready to launch at nearly 300 sites across the United States during the period from 1954 to the 1970s. Some of those missiles even carried nuclear warheads. Those missiles became obsolete with the advent of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
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.
A spiral portal to an alternate universe? Maybe an alien message? Or an ancient monument to a supernatural being? This giant spiral design in the desolate Egyptian desert, not far from the shores of the Red Sea, is an art installation called Desert Breath. In March 2007, Danae Stratou, Alexandra Stratou and Stella Constantinides created the 1 million square foot (100,000 square meters) artwork meant to celebrate "the desert as a state of mind, a landscape of the mind," the artists say on their website.