Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Google Street View Time Machine


In the series "A Modest Proposal," my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

With Google Street View, you can gaze at panoramic views from the streets of hundreds of cities across the world and many places off the beaten track as well, such as Antarctica, the Galapagos and the Amazon. Now scientists in France suggest Google Street View could be even more helpful if it could act like a kind of time machine as well, offering views of places across time.

Google captures photos of streets with a fleet of specially armed cars.

A Google Street View car

Recently, with special backpacks, Google Street View has gone off-road to places such as the Eiffel Tower, Mt. Fuji, the Grand Canyon, the base camp of Mt. Everest, and one day Venice.

Ecologists Jean-Pierre Rossi and Jérôme Rousselet at France's National Institute of Agronomic Research and their colleagues recently suggested Google Street View could help track and fight invasive species. They concentrated on the pine processionary moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa), whose caterpillar is one of the most destructive animals targeting pines and cedars in southern Europe, Central Asia and North Africa, devouring the foliage of these trees. These social caterpillars spin large communal white silk nests, which are highly visible, making them potential targets of surveys via Google Street View.

Researchers used Google Street View to track caterpillar nests from the pine processionary moth; here, different examples of infested trees located along streets in the region of Orleans, France. Credit: PLOS ONE

If Google offered a way to scan past images of places, that could yield even more key insights on nature, Rossi and Rousselet suggest. Google already provides historical imagery through another one of its mapping service, Google Earth. Google Street View also occasionally updates its photos, although on what schedule it does so remains uncertain — anywhere from every few months to every few years.

Rossi noted that Chinese scientists recently showed that modern and 100-year-old pictures could help reveal how landscapes in China have evolved over a century.

Evidence of climate change in Western China. Credit: PLOS ONE.

"Such type of work could be incredibly enriched if we had access to 100 years of Google Street View panoramic views," Rossi said. "We could also trace back invasions with a dynamic vision over large time scales, something obviously inaccessible today."

Scientists are already using Google Street View as a time machine. Seismologist Klaus-G. Hinzen at Cologne University in Germany used it to analyze the damage caused by the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in the Italian Abruzzi Mountains. Google Street View had unexpectedly taken photos of the area less than one year before the quake, providing an unexpected opportunity to compare photos taken after the earthquake with Google Street View scans before the quake, revealing details such as fractures, plaster breaks and collapsed walls.

These images use Google street view scans to identify quake-related damage. Credit: K-G Hinzen/SRL

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article