Google Earth goodies
Google Earth allows users to soar, swoop and fly over Earth's topography, exploring remote areas inaccessible to easy travel. On many of these trips, though, strange apparitions greet you. Some are real, while others are merely technical artifacts. Our list of weird Google Earth sightings mixes the false alarms with the authentic surprises. Can you guess which is which?
A sunken plane
Not far off the coast of Edinburgh, Scotland, a small figure appears in shallow water. Is that … a crashed plane?
Fortunately, no. The ghost plane spotted by an English mechanical fitter in November is a ghost image, not a real object. Google's aerial maps are actually composites, made of multiple photos overlaid so as to create the clearest, least-obstructed image possible. If a plane happens to be captured midflight in one of the images used in the composite, the craft appears as a washed-out image of itself in the final composite. The Edinburgh ghost plane, at coordinates 55 degrees 57 minutes 26 seconds north latitude and 3 degrees 5 minutes 35 seconds west longitude, was likely traveling to or from the nearby Edinburgh Airport. [Read more about the Edinburgh ghost plane]
Secret military base
Edinburgh's ghost plane may not be real, but shenanigans surrounding secretive military installments seen on Google Earth sure are. In October, two people, a writer and an engineer, leased private satellite imagery of the Tonopah Test Range in southwestern Nevada after noticing that Google Maps hadn't updated its images of the site for eight years. The pair suspected deliberate censorship; Google responded that the remote area had simply been overlooked in updates.
What is clear is that some of Google's clearest aerial imagery isn't available at places like Tonopah, and that's because of the restricted airspace above bases. At these installments, Google typically leases satellite imagery instead of taking aerial photographs. [Read more about the image of the secretive base]
The truth is out there … and the truth is that a UFO did not crash into South Georgia Island, Antarctica.
In March,a conspiracy-peddling YouTube channel posted a video claiming that Google Earth contained images of an extraterrestrial wipeout in the snow of the island. Zoom out a bit, though, and it's clear that the skid marks came from an avalanche, which has slumped an enormous pancake of snow and ice near Mount Paget. A large boulder of ice sits at the end of a long trail in the middle of the slump, with nary an E.T. in sight. [Read more about Antarctica’s ‘UFO’]
Ancient insect colonies
But who needs extraterrestrials, anyway? This planet has its own share of weird life, and some of it even shows up on Google Earth. In northeastern Brazil, termites have spent 4,000 years excavating a complex of subterranean tunnels. The approximately 2.4 cubic miles (10 cubic kilometers) of dirt the insects have moved is visible on Google Earth.
Sprawled across an area the size of Great Britain, the mounds measure about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter and 8 feet (2.5 m) tall apiece. There are around 200 million of them. [Read more about the ancient termite mounds]
Secret undersea tunnels?
Do secret undersea tunnels connect Antarctica to Australia? Here's the thing: No.
Every now and then, some Google Earth gawker notices grid-like lines on the ocean floor in the program and decides they've uncovered evidence of a vast conspiracy. This year, it was another UFO-obsessed YouTuber, who speculated that lines in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific Ocean might indicate structures built under the seafloor. Or they might be mystical alignments of religious sites and other structures, called “ley lines,” he proposed, or some kind of evidence of a hollow Earth.
The "discovery" of seafloor lines is so common that the U.S. National Ocean Service has a whole web page devoted to these claims, titled, "Did I find the lost underwater civilization of Atlantis?" As the agency explains, the lines are not really there. Instead, they come from a glitch that occurs when the data from two different sonar surveys get stitched together. The lines show the paths of sonar ships as they gather high-resolution data that is then put into a broader, lower-resolution map.
An untouched mountaintop rainforest
At times, it seems like humans have explored every nook and cranny of the land on Earth. But this year, researchers went somewhere that (almost) no one has ever been before, all thanks to Google Earth.
The destination was Mount Lico, Mozambique, where the research team discovered a high-altitude rainforest perched atop sheer slopes. Welsh conservation scientist Julian Bayliss first discovered the spot using Google Earth, The Verge reported. Actually visiting the forest required a dizzying 400-foot (123 m) climb up a vertical granite face. On top, the scientists found a remarkable ecosystem populated by butterflies, spiders and small mammals. A few old, handmade pots revealed that someone else had once made the climb, perhaps 100 years before. No one knew for sure who left the pots behind.
Swim with sharks
Cruising around Google Earth can sometimes feel like flying. With this year's Shark View addition to the software's Voyager feature, it can also feel like swimming.
Shark View allows users to virtually dive with the toothy fish in 26 different countries around the world. The Ocean Agency, a conservation nonprofit, provides the imagery; the sharks provide the thrill. Near Fiji, bull sharks circle. Off the coast of Australia, great whites roam. And then there are the more-unfamiliar species, like the lumpy-faced Port Jackson shark, named after its home in Australian waters. On Shark View, a curious Port Jackson shark glides toward the camera, its mottled, black-and-tan markings camouflaging it against the sandy seafloor.
The lost city of Irisagrig
For once, a "lost city" "discovered" on satellite imagery may be the real deal. Around the world, mysterious tablets connected to a lost city named Irisagrig have popped up in private artifact collections, including one seized from the owner of Hobby Lobby. The problem? Archaeologists don't know where Irisagrig is.
Satellite imagery is their best clue. Manuel Molina, a professor at the Spanish National Research Council, used satellite images to discover a mound near Afak, Iraq, that appears to have been looted heavily between 2003 and 2009. Molina said he suspects that this mound represents the remains of Irisagrig and the source of the tablets that have illegally entered the antiquities market.