Google Earth Gets Better and Better

Afghanistan to Zambia

Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek


Google Earth Gets Better And Better


This chronicle is a revised version of an earlier story about how important Google Earth has been in not only finding things like a car in a driveway by zooming in from space with satellite photos, but also using spatial references to help tell and share stories with others.  These days, the technology is better than ever.  And thanks to Google Earth for waiving their erstwhile copyright rules, we are more encouraged to share Google satellite photos and maps with others. We are bound to become better storytellers because pictures in stories are part of the finished product.

If it is true that a picture is worth 10,000 words, then the potential catalog of satellite photos in anyone’s archives will make travel stories more interesting. Unfortunately, our collective memories of most places are too dim to capture very many stories in detail; on the other hand, some places and some memories from around the world are so clear in our minds that we are able to reconstruct a few stories by reliving the travels, one trip at a time.

With the aid of the computer program called Google Earth, and sometimes flying to a destination with the embedded flight simulator, anyone should be able to tell a story or two in virtual space, by advancing the cursor from one place to another.  In fact, one is able to begin a flight along a selected route and move in any direction, pause, look around, and then proceed. The places on the satellite photos are real.  We merely become photo interpreters.

Creating an archive of personal photos is one thing, but adding computer generated photos of the surface of the earth is quite another task and may take us out of our comfort zone. It requires an interactive process that very few readers would relish doing on a routine basis. But just as photos from a camera are highly personal and might mean very little to others except for the picture taker, the associated satellite photos from past adventures of the Footloose Forester are highly prized.

One of his favorite applications is using the flight simulator in Google Earth to take virtual flights entirely around the symmetrical cones of volcanoes or to do virtual trekking in mountains he has known. For example, the satellite photos of the volcano named Volcan Izalco in El Salvador are so clear, that you can take a virtual flight completely around it and relate to the ground features as you fly along at the same altitude.  Volcan Izalco can be found in the suite of Google Earth maps and photos at Latitude N13◦ 48′ 46.66″ and Longitude W89◦ 37′ 51.24″. 

The particular suite of photos in the Izalco series that makes the virtual flight so real is helped and enhanced by the absence of cloud cover in the area; and the knowledge that the photo resolution in that particular suite is so precise that the viewer can spot exactly where the main trail leads to the top, and see the exact spot on the ground where two lonely pine trees are growing on an otherwise bald cinder cone.  The photo below is Volcan Izalco.  Putting a stick pin at the spot of the two pine trees will, however; require doing a little editing on the Google Earth satellite image.  Fortunately, marking things on the ground and tracing the trails up and down mountains can be done with some patient effort.



Volcan Izalco, without the red line climbing route shown

If he had not first seen those small pine trees himself when he stood there more than a decade ago, the Footloose Forester would himself not relate to the exact spots on the photos. Since there is virtually no other vegetation on the slopes of Volcan Izalco, the presence of the two small pine trees raises a number of questions of ecological and botanical interest. It should be mentioned, however, that not all photo suites in Google Earth are so good.  Persistent cloud cover in high mountains does not lend itself to clear photos; or to any photos, at all.

Another exercise with satellite photos in Google Earth is both a source of entertainment and a practical application of the many possibilities of high-resolution photos. As a sometime hang glider and/or paraglider pilot, the Footloose Forester confirmed for himself that it is possible to glide from the rim of another volcano in Cape Verde and land on a black sand beach a few miles away.

Hang glider or paraglider pilots know that it is easy enough to launch from a hillside almost anywhere, but having a flight plan that includes a safe landing place is crucial. The information found on the photo suite pertaining to the volcano called Fogo, on the island of the same name, lets you know at a glance the best place along the volcano’s rim to launch; the data at the bottom of the photo tells you the starting altitude for the glide; shows you the best flight path, and the locations of any ground obstacles such as towers and telephone lines along that flight path. Such notes as part of the planning process are also essential, just in case the pilot loses too much altitude in flight. Whereas different hang glider models have different glide ratios (horizontal distance covered divided by altitude change) capabilities, it is vitally important to also know what flight paths would not be possible to use in reaching the beach or other safe landing areas.  By the way, the terrain on the volcanic island of Fogo is so steep in most places, that flying a hang glider or paraglider, at all, is entirely ruled out because there are so few safe landing places.


Fogo Volcano, Cape Verde

At this stage, anyone curious enough to check it out can confirm or dispute these assumptions by putting themselves on the rim of Fogo at Latitude N14◦ 56′ 19.95″ and Longitude W24◦ 26′ 04.50″. As enabled with inter-station dialogue via computer graphics, the possible collaboration between computer correspondents could also result in a better flight plan.  The same principles apply when sharing tips on hiking trails or mountain climbing routes.



Paraglider pilot just before launch at Cape Town, South Africa 


One of the most satisfying uses of satellite photos as archived by the technicians at Google Earth is the classical before-after comparison.  Footloose Forester worked on a number of reservoir construction projects over the years, so was also curious to know how things worked out.  In almost all instances his involvement was during the pre-construction phase and was concerned with potential environmental impacts if or when a dam site was constructed; and as the reservoir filled up behind the dam.  Before-after is much easier to explain when there is photographic evidence to back it up. His 2010 memoirs Afghanistan to Zambia: Chronicles of a Footloose Forester has half a dozen geographical references to work sites in Mali, Senegal, Indonesia, Haiti, Cape Verde, Venezuela, and elsewhere.  The possibilities of comparing before-after conditions still exist; thus the geographical coordinates are essential tools in any present or future comparisons of circumstances on the ground.

Among his favorite work sites and, by implication, some of his fondest memories were thousands of miles apart in terms of geography but closely linked in terms of photographic retrieval techniques built into computer programs. Only after 25 years did he learn that the La Veultosa dam in Venezuela (at N7◦ 45′ 6.14″ and W71◦ 27′ 55.45″) had been constructed as planned; and these days he can also see just how the Manantali Dam in Mali (at N13◦ 11′ 48.12″ and W10◦ 25′ 45.33″) looks in contrast to the surrounding desert. 

In the first Google photo below, the site of the future Manantali Dam in Mali is marked with a yellow stick pin. The former site of the village of Kéniékéniéko is also shown.  After the reservoir behind Manantali Dam was more or less full in 1987, the village of Kéniékéniéko disappeared under the water.



Manantali damsite and location of Kéniékéniéko in 1978



In the photo below, the dam and its associated structures had been completed by 1986.  Kéniékéniéko is now underwater, one reason why knowing its former geographic coordinates is important.  Scuba diving archeologists should look on maps at coordinates Latitude N13° 12.8 20 and Longitude W10° 23 06.33 to find the sunken village.



Lac Manantali and environs, after 1987



Stickpins show relative positions of 1975 campsite and desert airstrip


In the third satellite photo of the area adjacent to Manantali Dam, note the proximity of the abandoned airfield. It was a thrill to take off and land there in 1976-77 when we first camped right next to the spine of hard rock narrows that would henceforth be dammed up to become Lac Manantali.  The landing procedure was to fly over the landing area and check the direction of the wind, have a local herder shoo the grazing animals away from the runway, have him unfurl the roll of toilet paper that the pilot tossed out of his side window and wait until it was hoisted on the wooden shaft used as a windsock.  Doug Hudgins, the pilot, said that he made the flight the first time to prove he was a good pilot; and flew in the second time to prove that he was committed to the project, but he also said that he was not going to do it again to prove that he was crazy.

When the Footloose Forester once mentioned reliving the past a few meters at a time, he said so after virtual retracing his path on his way to the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany.  Yes, virtually retracing his path by flying along the trail with the aid of the flight simulator sub-routine in Google Earth.  The sharp stones are there, the shadows between opposing faces are there, the ridge lines are there, and the drop offs are there; all in archives that are so clear that it is easy to imagine being there again.  By rotating the scenes you are able to look up, look down and see back along the route from whence you came.  His personal archives contain a Google satellite photo that includes a route marked in red, his way to the top in 1962.



Red lined climbing route up the Zugspitze

Of course, the Footloose Forester still pines for his boyhood days when he and his friends in Netcong, New Jersey played on top of huge glacially deposited boulders near his house. An archived Google Earth satellite photo taken prior to 2005 will show a few of them at N40◦ 53′ 42.16″and W74◦ 42′ 34.08″ but subsequent photos show only a dozen or so boulders that were blasted, excavated and moved aside. Words alone are not sufficient to describe the circumstances of the before-after situation. The historical pictures taken from space satellites tell it better.

Finally, for anyone who might be curious to know where President John F. Kennedy was at noon on the day after his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, he was eating lunch at coordinates N50◦ 09′ 40.91″ and E8◦ 57′ 54.55″.  We had steak followed by chocolate ice cream, at the US Army mess on Fliegerhorst Kaserne. 


Barbara Wilson
Sand, Silt, and Clay

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Comments 2

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Dick Pellek (website) on Monday, 27 February 2017 07:43

Best of luck in developing your stories. I'm looking forward to reading them on LegacyStories and elsewhere.

Best of luck in developing your stories. I'm looking forward to reading them on LegacyStories and elsewhere.
Dick Pellek (website) on Friday, 12 May 2017 13:22

I'm pleased that you are spreading the word about the usefulness of Google Earth and its potential. As you can see, my main interests are to include actual locations in the telling of true stories and to use before-after photo suites to explain changes in the landscape.

Thank you for your interest and taking the time to respond. We as readers and writers have powerful tools at our disposal and I think we should use them effectively.

I'm pleased that you are spreading the word about the usefulness of Google Earth and its potential. As you can see, my main interests are to include actual locations in the telling of true stories and to use before-after photo suites to explain changes in the landscape. Thank you for your interest and taking the time to respond. We as readers and writers have powerful tools at our disposal and I think we should use them effectively.