Google Earth aids scientific discovery, new species at Mount Mabu, Mount Mabu

Google Earth Reveals Hidden Marijuana Fields to Swiss Authorities

January 30, 2009 10:55 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In the latest example of law enforcement using the Intenet satellite mapping tool to nab criminals, Swiss police said Thursday that Google Earth helped them uncover a marijuana plantation.

Swiss Police Catch Marijuana Farmers


Police investigating an alleged drug ring in the northeastern state of Thurgau used Google Earth to observe the suspected farmers involved, and found the two-acre hemp plantation hidden in a field of corn.

“It was an interesting chance discovery,” said Zurich police’s specialist narcotics unit head Norbert Klossner. Police arrested 16 people and seized 1.2 tons of marijuana, and plan to complete the criminal investigation in February.

Google Earth has increasingly become useful to law enforcement officials in recent years, as it is cheaper than flying helicopters or planes over areas of observation.

While Chuck Herring, director of communications for satellite data provider DigitalGlobe, told CNET in 2007 that Google Earth’s image quality is accurate enough to spot things like marijuana fields, some say that the tool has its limitations. “The satellite photography in Google Earth is not live. It’s not even recent. In most cases, it varies widely from as recent as a few months old to a few years old,” said Frank Taylor, who runs the unofficial Google Earth blog, to CNET.

Nevertheless, a variety of government agencies are using the service. Tax authorities use it to nab homeowners who fail to pay taxes on new additions to their property, while highway patrols are using it to map the locations of fatal auto accidents.

But it can also go the other way: some citizens are also using Google Earth to evade authorities, such as a database in Europe that displays the location of the police’s secret speeding cameras. And in 2007, The New York Times reported that New York City officials were becoming concerned about the wealth of information available on Web services such as Google Earth, and their potential to compromise counterterrorism initiatives.

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Related Topics: Google Earth finds new species, maps refugee camps

Google Earth has become useful in a variety of functions.

Last year, a British expedition of scientists to northern Mozambique used the mapping tool to discover a treasure trove of biodiversity in a previously uncharted forest called Mount Mabu. They found that the 27-square-mile “Lost World” was filled to the brim with exotic plants, insects, and animals, including three new species of Lepidoptera butterly and a new member of the poisonous Gaboon viper family of snakes.

Kew scientist Julian Bayliss says that he found Mount Mabu while researching possible conservation projects in the area using Google Earth, and unexpectedly noticed green, wooded areas in unexplored locales.
Google Earth is also helping to map worldwide refugee movement and humanitarian efforts. “All of the things that we do for refugees in the refugee camps around the world will become more visible,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone at the Geneva launch of Google Earth’s new software. Users will have access to images of refugees in areas such as Iraq, Darfur and Colombia. Although not all areas of the world are available in high resolution, users can zoom in on refugee camps to get accurate images of the challenges and day-to-day struggles in these locations.

Other scientific uses of the mapping tool include using it to study the migration patterns of endangered animals, to create biomaps of the emotional stress levels of cities, and to track storms, the paths of solar eclipses, volcanic activity, the melting of arctic ice, and bird flu mutations.

Google Earth is not the only new technology that has recently become of use to scientists. Wired magazine reports that high-definition video is helping scientists study the forces that create volcanic eruptions.

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