Google Earth Pro: the cool, the trade-offs and the limits

This post is an account of my recent experience with Google Earth Pro (GPE), a free online tool meant to make visualization of geographical information intuitive and accessible. This account contains tidbits that I thought others might find useful, but it is not meant to be an unbiased or comprehensive resource.

My goal in using GPE was to set up a short video tour of the reservoirs on the main stem of the Upper Snake River, which has its upper reaches around the Teton Range (WY, USA) before going through much of southern Idaho. Here is the video, produced with instructions from this post from the blog:

 

The cool

GPE is indeed an intuitive way for people that have only a limited experience of geographic information systems (GIS) to put together nice-looking videos in a limited amount of time. It relies on the increasingly large amounts of geographic data available online. For instance, polygons made of points with geographical coordinates, used to delineate political boundaries or catchments among others, can be found increasingly easily, be it under formats specific to GPE (KML, KMZ), or traditional GIS format such as SHP (shapefile format, which can be imported to GPE with… “File => Import”, I told you it was intuitive). This capability to find the right data could be improved by the recent launch of a dataset search engine by Google.

This video, after several tests, superposed three layers on the satellite images of the land surface:

  1. Pins of the dams’ locations. Please refer to this post to learn all you need to know about setting and customizing such new placemarks.
  2. The network of all streams with an average flow of more than 10 m3/s in the Columbia River basin. This is mainly for easy visualization of where the Snake River and its affluents are. That data was obtained from this useful USGS resource, with all the major basins in the US having data in GPE-ready KML format (basin boundaries, tributaries with their average flows, landuse, etc.).
  3. An invisible layer contains the shapes of the reservoirs’ lakes, in order to zoom in on the reservoir and not the dam itself. I got the shapes of waterbodies in the Upper Snake River basin from an amazing resource for water resources practitioners (see “The limits” below to see how to access this resource, but also to understand why it must be handled with care). Hint: since the list of waterbodies is dauntingly large and includes every little puddle in the area, I had to zoom in to the desired reservoir so as to only select its shape, by doing “File => Import”, then when prompted, by choosing to only import the features in my line of sight.

The trade-offs

The trade-offs when doing this kind of short intro video to your study area, are between video quality and required memory. This is especially true if the video is of a rather large area, as the GPE satellite images embed a level of detail that is amazing at the scale of that basin. Therefore, when creating my video, I had to resort to several tries before gettingĀ  a correct quality, and this video eats up 500Mo of disk space for 43 seconds (!!!!). Any video with lower resolution just looked downright disgusting, whereas any larger video may have serious problem running on your laptop. Think of it as a Goldilocks zone that you have to find if you want to have a video you can embed in an oral presentation.

(NB: to embed this video in a presentation in a fullproof kind of way, the easiest is to embed a link from the PPT file to the video in the same folder).

The limits

The limits of Google Earth are with its plain refusal to display features it deems too big. To understand this, let us look at this USGS webpage where a sizable of hydrological information can be downloaded. In particular it is possible to download data exactly for the upper Snake area (Subregion 1704 on the picture below). This data can include waterbodies as discussed above (in “the cool”) and that is contained in the NHD data ticket in the picture. By ticking “Watershed Boundary Dataset (WBD)”, one can also download basin and subbasin boundaries.

WBD_data

Why then did I not represent Upper Snake boundaries in my video? Well, the Upper Snake polygon, under SHP format at least, is too big so GPE just… refused to display it. I tried to represent the HU-6 and HU-8 subbasins (smaller than the HU-4-sized Upper Snake under this classification system, and:

  • The HU-6 subbasin just divides the basin into “headwaters” (smaller part upstream of Palisades) and “the rest”; the former feature was smaller and GPE plotted it, but it did not plot the latter.
  • The HU-8 subbasins all are individually smaller features that GPE accepts to plot. So I could have plotted the watershed boundaries by plotting ALL of the HU-8 subbasins, but spoiler alert: this looked horrendous.

Takeaway: GPE only displays features that individually have limited size. So maybe using a more powerful and recent desktop computer than the one I had would have done the trick… but be aware that there will always be a limit. Also note that assuming that GPE is just taking its time loading the data, and that staring blankly at the screen in the meantime is not going to be too painful, is not a good idea. Take a nap instead, or do something else, then admit that the damn thing just did not display.

A solution for this, of course, is to load the larger features on GIS software and making them lighter by eliminating points in the polygon without altering the shape… but that kinda beats the purpose of GPE, which is to avoid having to become a GIS geek, doesn’t it?

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