Earth Time Lapse

Nothing is completely static on geologic timescales, but some features—like volcanoes, barrier islands, glaciers, and human development—change faster than others. To see these changes, I’ve been playing around with Google’s Earth Engine. By combining over 30 years of Landsat imagery it offers a remarkable look at how Earth’s surface has changed recently. I found reason for concern, but was reminded just how beautiful the planet is.


Volcanoes are the most dynamic landforms on Earth. While the above GIF’s imagery starts a few years after Mount Saint Helen’s 1980 eruption, it captures the volcano’s awakening from 2004-2008 when a large lava dome grew in the crater. Very cool.

Surtseyan eruptions are island forming eruptions that happen in shallow water. In 2011 and 2012, you can see new islands suddenly appear on the sea’s surface in the Zubair Group, volcanic islands in the Red Sea. Few people have seen new islands form, but there they are. Super cool.

Barrier Islands

Barrier islands move, often rapidly. Toms Cove Hook is protected as part of Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike most barrier islands on the Atlantic coast of the U.S., Assateague is almost free of permanent structures and roads. Toms Cove Hook has no development at all. Here is an increasingly rare opportunity to watch a barrier island dance. Beautiful.

Fire Island is a national seashore off of Long Island in New York. Before the 2012 breach, watch the sand slowly creep across the island. Barrier islands move shoreward when sea levels rise. They are not permanent features. When allowed to move naturally I find these islands exceptionally beautiful, but they are no place for permanent roads or structures. It’s human folly to build on these islands. They simply change too quickly.


Carbon Glacier carves the north slope of Mount Rainer. Worldwide, glaciers have undergone significant declines over the last 30 years and Carbon Glacier is no exception, but that doesn’t mean glaciers still don’t flow downhill. Even receding glaciers continue to erode the land as Carbon Glacier demonstrates. It carries sediments downhill in a conveyor belt-like manner while its terminus shrinks. I find a glacier’s flow mesmerizing.

Human Development

This is, sadly, probably the easiest example of rapid change to find on Earth today. Cranberry Township, Butler County, PA is a typically example of the development much of the U.S. has experienced in my lifetime. I grew up about 20 miles north of here and witnessed its semi-rural farmland transform into a maze of tract homes and strip malls.

That rainforest destruction I heard about as a kid really hasn’t abated either. GIF showing destruction of Amazon rainforest

Who knew it would be so easy to watch decades of change? Tools like the Earth Engine are amazing and they allow me to see the world like never before. As I browsed I was awed by power and beauty of natural changes and saddened by the rate humans are altering the planet. Hopefully, we can use information like this to inspire everyone to protect what we have left.

2 thoughts on “Earth Time Lapse

  1. Mike – Did you mean to include links in the barrier islands and glacier sections (or maybe I’m just being dense)? I get what you’re saying about development where you grew up. I’m going to see if I can use the Google earth engine to view the growth here. One reason property is so expensive here is the decision years ago to keep a lot of the land as open space. I’m grateful for those who made those decisions although it has its negative impacts on many, which is not good.


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